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I slept in till almost midday in my Udachny hotel room. I had thoughts of riding back to Mirny today, but it was a Saturday. The few things I needed to do in Mirny needed to wait until Monday anyway, and I was still thinking about a potential ride out with the towns bad boys. As it happens the bad boys didnt contact me until 5pm, and I had just jet washed the bike (thanks to the mining company guys) and refilled it with fuel, thinking they wouldnt call. In any case, the lads didnt actually know what lay beyond the river crossing, and their bikes didn’t look like they stood a good chance of going very far.
- – -
I had packed the night before and decided to leave early. I could have waited round until 11:30 when the cafe opened and had a cup of tea and stocked up on some food, but instead hit the road about 8:45am
It was terribly cold, probably about -3 degrees. Light snow had fallen overnight, the second snow of the season. The previous night had seen the first snow but it hadnt stuck. Even with all the gear on including my heated vest and gloves I was struggling with the cold and reduced speed to 75km/h for the first hour to help deal with it.
After a completely uneventful morning I reached Chernyshevsky 430 km and 5 hours later, stopping there to refuel and to get something to eat and drink. I continued on to Mirny, arriving soon after 3pm. When I turned on my phone, a SMS arrived from Arnaud, saying he was making good progress on the Vilyuisky Trakt and should arrive in Mirny tonight. I called Ilya, the biker I knew in Mirny and he was fixing his Africa Twin with the town’s moto-cross guys. I went round there and did a couple of laps of the moto-cross track myself on the XC, before letting a proper motocross rider have a go on my bike.
About 6pm I got a phone call from Arnaud. He had just arrived in Mirny. I told him to meet Ilya and myself in Lenin Square. Five minutes later and we were all there. Arnaud had a contact in Mirny who had a place where we could stay for free, so we waited for the contact to show up and take to our very humble lodgings, before heading out for a dinner of Shashlik and beer before retiring.
- – -
9am and Arnaud woke me up in my freezing unheated room with news that he had just been told there was a boat leaving Lensk at 12:00. We had been worried about when we might get the next boat so this was a boat we needed to try and take. They would hold the boat until 12:30 for us. It was a 3 hour ride. We had 30 minutes to wake up, pack and leave Mirny.
I didnt so much pack as throw all my gear into my bags. I still had stuff at Andrei’s garage and Andrei doesnt usually start until 10am, but I called him and asked him to rush down and open his garage for me. He did.
Arnaud and I sped full throttle down to Lensk, slowing only for the mud created by recent rain, and roadworks. We headed directly for where the boat had dropped me off 5 days earlier, and the same boat was waiting. Luggage was stripped off and our bikes shoved up the nose of the boat to rest on the front deck.
From here it was a 5 day boat ride upstream to Ust Kut, on a twin engined boat that had only one engine working.
- – -
07, 08, 09, 10, 11.09.09
Arnaud was the French guy who had stopped Tony in the streets of Vladivostok after recognising him as one of the Sibirsky Extreme guys. He had been after road condition information on the Road of Bones, as he was about to board a boat to Magadan. I had kept in touch with Arnaud, and a few weeks later (when he was relaxing in Yakutsk) we chatted about the BAM road and Vilyuisky Trakt, and which would be better to get him back to Irkutsk. As my experience of the BAM road unfolded, and with Arnaud travelling solo, it became clear that the only choice was the Vilyuisky Trakt.
Arnaud took the recommended road and was greeted at every ferry,and almost every cafe and fuel stop with “Guess what?! We had two English guys come thru here a few months ago also on motorcycles”.
Arnaud is fluent in Russian and reported to me when we met in Mirny that not only were the two English guys famous on the Vilyuisky Trakt, but Tony and I had made a positive impression everywhere. That is something that money cant buy, an inner satisfaction. These people had been very good to us (apart from one river crossing truck driver) and it was satisfying to hear we had left a positive impression with the Yakuts of the Vilyui valley, as indeed they had with us.
Arnaud has been in Siberia for 15 years, running his own tour firm on Lake Baikal, organising movie sets in Yakutia etc, even running motorcycle tours around the Baikal region. He is riding one of his left over tour bikes, a TTR 250. It’s proved a little underpowered for the more open sections of road, and he said he was full throttle for the whole road to Lensk.
As the boat sailed into the first night, we began talking about some of the expressions of interest I have had in the Sibirsky Extreme Project. Arnaud, with his years of running tours and logistics in Siberia felt there was be a good opportunity to put together a one-off organised motorcycle trip from Magadan to Lake Baikal next year, led by the two of us.
The following days were spent refining the concept. The more we thought and talked about it, the more the idea made sense. So few people ever make it to Magadan on a bike, or get to do the Road of Bones, yet many dream of it. The logistical and language barriers are the primary reasons. Its a hell of a long way away, its very hard to get to, and nobody there speaks English. As for the Vilyuisky Trakt into the attractive heart of Yakutia, its virgin territory for foreigners, let alone motorcyclists. Lake Baikal is a logical, beautiful place to finish and really is Arnaud’s speciality … he knows that region like the back of his hand.
Look for a link on the website in the weeks ahead. It could only ever be a small group, 5-8 people, over 4 weeks. If anyone is interested, drop me a line thru the blog and we will send out more detailed information as we put it together. If we get enough expressions of interest, we will have a serious ride on next summer, Magadan – Baikal.
- – -
Arnaud and I had arrived back in Ust Kut around 10pm last night and arranged to stay on board the boat for one more night. The plan was to leave first thing in the morning. We pushed the bikes off the boat and locked them together next to the boat, set the alarm for 05:30 ! and tried to sleep. Sleeping was near impossible onthe boat, without the drone of the engine in the background and it was an evening of tossing and turning and restlessness.
5:30 came and despite both wanting to sleep in, we headed down to the galley, where the cook from the boat had also woken up early to cook breakfast for us. With full stomachs, we loaded up the bikes and were ready to go by 6:30, only it was still pitch black. I consulted my phone … daylight comes to Ust Kut at 7:20 am on this day of the year. And so we went back to our cabin and had 45 minutes snooze before finally hitting the road about 7:15.
It was cold and foggy and I had dressed in my heated vest. Arnaud on his little 250 had no such luxury. He just had to endure the cold. Bratsk was 350km away, mostly over dirt roads, but the roads were decent and we made it to the sprawling spread out city of Bratsk around lunchtime. The Hydroelectric dam at Bratsk is supposed to be one of the largest in the world, and it certainly was huge. I have never seen one bigger.
I noticed my front end didnt feel right. Tony P has a credo that if something doesnt feel or sound right, its because something isnt right, and you need to stop and sort it out. I knew something wasnt right but just felt like I wanted to get to Krasnoyarsk where the bike would get a full going over by Zhenya and his team of bike mechanics.
Bratsk is spread out over about 50 km and while riding through Bratsk the unease in the front end of the bike felt progressively worse. We stopped and chatted to some Police guys about the road to Taishet, the last 300km of the BAM road. They said if we want to go to Krasnoyarsk from Bratsk, we needed to go on the asphalt road to Tulun and then the Trans Siberian Highway to Krasnoyarsk. With my front end clearly sick, I decided not to argue. It was a longer route, but a safer one with a sick bike.
80 km outside of Bratsk and I was kicking myself for not listening to Tony’s credo. I had seen grease oozing past the right front wheel bearing seal when we had stopped in Bratsk and strongly suspected that bearing was on the way out. I had been obsessed with getting to Krasnoyarsk and should have stopped in Bratsk to see what could be done about the bearing. Now I was out on the empty road and the bearing was dead. It was cold but at least it had temporarily stopped raining. There was nothing for it but to get sore and greasy and sort the problem.
Arnaud rode 500 yards ahead where a truck was parked on the side of the road and borrowed a hammer. I jacked up the bike with a stick and removed the front wheel. I started whacking out the old bearing with the hammer and a screwdriver. Predictably it crumbled and I was left with the problem of trying to remove the outer housing of the old bearing. After 20 minutes and a lot of sore thumbs, I had removed the old bearing completely and searched around in my spare pars bag for new bearings.
5½ months on the road and a lot of water in the side bags had left my spare bearings in poor shape. All my spare parts were covered in sand and rust. I had no option by to clean up one of the bearings as best I could and use it. The truck drivers up the road began to move off and Arnaud went to offer them the hammer back. They said we needed it more th
Tony and Terry checked into the Lena Hotel in downtown ust Kut. I had ridden ahead of them to get to Ust Kut in time to sort out a boat trip back to Lensk.
I still harboured a burning ambition to get to the Arctic Circle in Asia. Tony and Terry were short on time and had to head back to the UK, but I thought I just had enough time before the seasons changed to try one more time to get North from Udachny.
A few handshakes and hugs could never be enough to say farewell to the two guys who have partnered me along this BAM Road odyssey. Tony has been with me for almost 3 months … initially just planning to ride Altai, Tuva and Lake Baikal with me over 3 weeks, but that grew into 3 months across some of the wildest roads in Siberia. I am unsure how it will feel to be riding without Tony. It was in Central Asia the last time I set out on a day’s ride without waking up Tony first. I dont think I have met a guy with such understated determination. No matter how tough things got, Tony just put his head down and got the job done. What he lacked in technique he made up for in abundance with balls. The guy is all about balls. If you see him, offer to shake his balls!
Terry has been a different asset on the BAM road. Apart from his ability to have a laugh, his vast off road riding experience going back about as long as I have been alive, was put to good effect on the tough BAM road. When the going got really tough it was great to send in Terry up front to show the best line though. I learned a lot about line picking from watching Terry carve up the toughest tracks. Terry was the first person we turned to if anything mechanical or technical was amiss. ’Terry, what do you reckon?’. Terry and I rode at similar tempos and for long stretches it was just Terry and I riding together, followed by a wait for Tony.
I will really miss those guys. In 2 weeks or so, they will be back in England, and I will be where they are now. Maybe I am mad to head up to Udachny again.
I loaded the bike onto the boat for Lensk at another obscure loading point. As it happened, the boat had to dock briefly at the main river port anyway, next to the Lena Hotel. I called the guys and told them to bring a few beers down to the river. We clinked beer bottles for the last time down on the shores of the Lena, and my boat pulled away into the darkness, set for 1000 km on the Lena.
- – -
30.08 – 31.08 – 01.09.09
I shared a 4 berth room on the boat with Valeri, and old truck driver from Lensk. He was clean, didnt drink or smoke, and was about as good a companion as I could have hoped for.
I had been told the ride to Lensk would be two days, Valeri had been told a day and a half. A couple of hours out of Ust Kut and it was apparent that was not going to happen. The engines shut down and the boot moored in the river about midnight. When I awoke in the morning, we had not moved. We were still just 45km from Ust Kut. It was almost midday before the engines fired up again. We had thought the boat had stopped due to fog last night, but there had be no fog since early in the morning. It was apparent there was a bit of engine repair and maintenance going on. I noted only one propeller was turning and when the boat was moving we were making about 17-20 km/h … about the same as the barge had done two months earlier. So I assumed we would also take about 3 days for the journey.
The boat had warm showers for a few hours each day and a galley, where hot meals were prepared 3 times a day. That was a big improvement on the barge. In theory the barge could have cost us about 9000 rubles each back in July … the price for vehicles was 4000 rubles per metre of length. But they didnt know how to account for motorcycles as they are not full width vehicles. I guess they could have charged us half the regular price per metre, but in the end they charged us nothing, and we took the barge from Ust Kut to Lensk for free. The boat I was on now, the ‘Moskovsky 11′ charged 8000 rubles (180 EUR) per passenger for the journey (which included a cabin) … and 6000 for the motorcycle, which was fitting neatly on the front deck of the boat.
I have been in touch with Arnaud, the Frenchman we met in Vladivostok. Arnaud went up to Magadan and rode to Yakutsk. He is planning to ride to Lensk and we will probably try and take the return ferry together from Lensk to Ust Kut in about a week.
while beached in Kirensk to pick up a few passengers, I briefly fired up the laptop internet connection and had a chat with Mac Swinarski. He is back in Poland after his epic ride to Anadyr.
This year is a turning into a great year for horizon widening in Siberia. All sorts of new possibilities have opened up. Routes have been mapped and documented. Mac was telling me even the locals in Anadyr know nothing about the perfectly decent new roads he found to their city. Only a handful of people know anything about the roads – usually the truck drivers that regularly drive them in their 6WD trucks – and they typically dont have internet. We found the same with the BAM road and Vilyuisky Trakt … There was only one guy who could tell us the Vilyuisky Trakt was definately do-able in its entirity, and that was Andrei the mechanic in Mirny.
Most of the locals you ask en route don’t have a clue and know only about the area within about an hour or two’s drive away from where they are. The two Moscow guys we met adventuing across the country in their wazzik (Road of Bones) had expressed great surprise that we had done the Vilyuisky Trakt. They had been been researching Russian 4WD sites for months, and found nothing to suggest it was possible.
- – -
Back to life on the river … A day later, and our boat docked in Vitim, where the Vitim River joins the Lena. Vitim is a real boom town around here. There is a big plan to develop oil and gas fields about 170 km ‘inland’ and Vitim will be the centre of logistics for that. The next few years will see the town grow from a small service port to one of the key cities on the Lena, the same way Lensk grew dramatically to service the diamond towns of Mirny, Almazny, Aikhal, Udachny and Anabar several decades ago.
Valeri my cabin mate was telling me that if it werent for the crisis they would have started building the planned road between Lensk and Vitim already. Watch out for that one in the next few years. Already there is a road from the BAM town of Nebel to Kirensk on the Lena, so in a couple of years you would need a boat only from Kirensk to Vitim. In about 6-7 years, you wont need the boat at all to go from Ust Kut to Lensk as there should be a road all the way. (Actually you dont need a boat now – you can go all the way the long way round via Tynda and Yakutsk.) Plans are to link Ust Kut with the new oil and gas fields by road, which will already be linked to Lensk via Vitim.
- – -
About 10am, after 3.5 days on the river, the boat docked in Lensk and I unloaded my bags and then the bike. I had a big day ahead of me. I was going to try and get to Udachny, 770km away, all on dirt roads, by the end of the day. If I made it, it would be the biggest day of the trip in terms of mileage. I had wasted enough time on the boat and had itchy feet. Too much time sitting and thinking, without any doing.
I found a fuel station and hit the road. It was 10:20 when I left Lensk. I’d had plenty to eat on the boat over the last few days so breakfast was not required. I would go straight through to Mirny 240 km away.
The road from Lensk to Mirny was in truly excellent condition. Its one of the finest dirt roads I have ever ridden. I sat on 110 km/h the whole way, but if I didnt have mousse in my front tyre and gearing for low speed via my front sprocket, I would have done most of the road at 130. I stopped on for photographs. The seasons were changing up here already and the trees were bursting with colour.
I fuelled up again on the southern edge of Mirny. I didnt need to – I would fuel up at Chernyshevsky 100 km further up the road too, but there the price would be a lot higher and the quality less reliable. Better to get as much as possible while in Mirny. I sped on to Andrei’s workshop, our trusty mechanic from 2 months ago, arriving at 12:45. I had texted him I was on my way as I left Lensk, but it was a quiet day in the workshop and he was away. I stripped the bags off the bike and just took a couple of much lightened bags – leaving two bags at Andrei’s to collect on my return.
I stopped at the Mirny market place to pick up some Samsa’s for the trip North. Andrei had shown me this little shop, a personal favorite, 2 months ago, and remembered the samsa’s were the best I had eaten in Russia. I took the liberty with time of eating one. I pulled out of Mirny just before 2pm. It would be a 6-7 hour ride to Udachny, 530 km away, assuming I stopped only for fuel along the way.
The road from Mirny to Chernyshevsky is not as good as the Lensk – Mirny section of the Anabar Road, and party out of respect for the road and partly because I wanted to get accustomed to riding at 90 km/h for the section North of Chernyshevsky to conserve fuel, I slowed to 90 km/h for the 105km to Chernyshevsky. I topped up with 5 litres of fuel there. Now I was maxxed out on fuel. Both tanks dripping fuel onto the pavement. 22 litres ready to burn.
Last time we went up from Chernyshevsky, both Tony and I had both burned more fuel than expected … we had a strong headwind the whole way and rode at 110 km/h … which probably explains it. But I ran out before Aikhal, which is still 65 km short of Udachny, and relied on Tony going ahead to get me 5 litres. This time I wanted to go straight thru to Udachny. There wasnt too much wind about and I was going to try and stick to the more economical speed of 90 km/h by the GPS … which is about 96 km/h on my speedo.
The usual collection of ‘Jacksons’ (terminology courtesy of the brothers Vince) stopped me to ask the usual question in Chernyshevsky when I refuelled and then stopped at the shop for a litre of liquid refreshment, but I brushed them aside. I was on a mission. I had now done about 350 km and had 420 still to go – non stop. I didnt know when it got dark this far North at this time of year, but I was only 3 weeks from the equinox … I guessed it would be about 8pm. I had no time to spare if I wanted to not risk riding in the dark.
Headphones were blaring and I just concentrated on the surface of the road ahead. There had clearly been rain around and some patches of the road were moist, tho so far no rain had touched me today. The first point of interest would be the village of Morkoka. It’s the only inhabited place between Aikhal and Chernyshevsky. It has about half a dozen buildings, a fuel station that seems to only sell diesel (though I would try again to buy petrol when I got there) and I have been told a cafe with rooms.
When I got there, I asked a stopped truck driver where the cafe was. It seems a silly question for someone in the west, but in the more remote parts of Russia, every building and every door looks the same. None offer a hint of what is behind each one. Places like Morkoka dont even bother with signs. There are no visitors here – Just the regular truck drivers who know where everything is. I marked the location of the cafe on my GPS and moved on to the fuel station.
I am compiling a list of waypoints of all the cafes, fuel stations, hotels, water hazards etc I have used, crossed or even seen in off the beaten track Siberia. I think that would be useful. No one needs a guide or guide book if you already know where the fuel, cafes and hotels are.
As I suspected, the fuel station refused to sell me fuel – mentioned something about needing paperwork, coupons or something like that to buy here. I looked inside my tanks to guess how much fuel I had left. My economy looked good. I estimated at current consumption I would get to Udachny with 2-3 litres to spare.
It was always a risk, now that I was travelling alone. When I was with Tony we could take these risks. If one person ran out of fuel, the other could go ahead with the fuel canister. Tony had been Tsar of the spare fuel canister … mainly from necessity. Terry and I both had 22 litres of capacity, due to modifications, but Tony had just the stock 17 litre tank. This was however, compensated with a old 5 litre oil container found by the side of the road, at a cost of zero rubles / dollars / euro / sterling. By strap
Terry had asked to take a day off to have a bit of a look around Lake Baikal and I was in no mood to disagree. We decided to take a ride down to the seal hunting village of Baikalskoye 40km to the south, sort out anything that needed sorting and generally have a relaxed day. The weather was awesome. Sure it was bloody cold prior to about 11am, but clear blue cloudless skies cheered us up. It was the first cloudless day since meeting Terry … he must be bad luck!
My bike wouldnt start, so Tony went into the centre of Severobaikalsk to sort out breakfast, while Terry and I started the time old process of checking if we are getting spark, if so, are we getting fuel? It turned out we were not getting fuel. A connection was loose to the fuel pump. Once diagnosed, and the connection jiggled around a bit, all was well and the bike reassembled just in time to enjoy a greasy take away breakfast.
We rode about 10km out of town and found a deserted stretch of lakeshore to chill out on. There was plenty of deserted beach, but we chose a nice grassy spot. Mosquito free, midge free, ant free … it was heavenly and the boys both soon drifted off to sleep. Must be an age thing. I began to daydream about everything from changes taking place back at home in London to people we met or crossed paths with on our recent travels.
I have since heard (see feedback in various blogs) from two other bikers I had sought … one was the mystery solo biker that passed through the Kyubeme fuel dump about a week before Tony and me … he indeed was a Pole, as we suspected. Marek Grzywna – his blog is at http://syberianexpress-majopl.blogspot.com.
And of course the two Poles whose route (and accomodation) we echoed from Vanino to Fevralsk with uncanny commonality – even sleeping in the same room (totally unintentional) for about 3 different evenings – I have since heard from Robert ‘Movistar’ Mamzer, who was one of those guys. We had such common experiences that its now my duty to have a beer with him!
I wondered what happened to the American on the red bike (Olyokma River Bridge) … by way of an update on this one, I had also spoken to the security guy at the Kuanda River Bridge. That was another bridge that anyone taking the BAM road must cross. He remembered the Americans (plural … 2 of them he recalled), but they had taken a flatbed train at least as far as Chara. So they hadnt ridden the whole road to Tynda? and maybe he/they had also skipped the mighty Vitim River Bridge – that cradle of manliness! I still need to learn more. Its the only loose end in terms of contacts. Does anyone know who this guy is?
In Baikalskoye, we grabbed an ice-cream each and headed down to the jetty, taking in the cloudless blue sky and crystal clear waters of Lake Baikal. Eventually it was time to head back to Severobaikalsk. I needed to find a place to upload some long overdue pictures for the blog and Tony hadnt checked his email in weeks. Terry is a bit of a luddite, so no problem for him. He just sat out sunning himself in Severobaikalsk’s central square.
When all was done, we stopped off at the market for a huge and tasty dinner of shashlik – long one of my favorites, and now one of Terry’s favorites too, before grabbing a few beers and heading back to the hotel to pack.
With the hard riding all behind us now, we re-arranged the loads. We would soon be parting ways and now as as good a time as any to make sure the right stuff was on the right bike.
- – -
Another nice sleep in and warm shower to start the day. This civilisation stuff can really grow on you – makes us wonder why we ever headed out into the real wilds of Siberia. Today would be a relatively short ride – 340km on prepared roads. A mere 6 hours or so. We left Severobaikalsk around 10:30. By 1pm we were passing the point where the Zhigalovo Road meets the BAM road … a point Tony and I got to exactly 2 months ago to the day, on our way up to Yakutia.
It was strange to ride a road that felt familiar. Almost every point in the road gave me flashbacks to 2 months ago. Its incredible how much data can be stored in the brain … all HD quality video replays from 2 months ago came flooding back. We stopped in at the same railway canteen at Magistralny for lunch.
Tony had been complaining of a soggy rear end … I pointed out he was of pensionable age so it was par for the course. He however wanted to look at his tyre pressures and wheel bearings … before realising his rear wheel axle nut was loose. Phew!, at least thats easy to fix.
Onwards and upwards to Ust Kut … about 3:30pm we passed the spot that was total and utter muddy bog 2 months ago. In the cloudless blue sunny skies of today, riding it now was a doddle. It was almost dry. But it was still easy to imagine how it would look after a days rain!
In the final few dozen kilometres into Ust Kut, Tony had flashbacks to Yakutia and his 15 punctures. He had two rear wheel punctures, to add to one he scored last night. All up he is now up to 18 punctures. I think there is a good chance he can get 20 by the time he gets back to Denham Village in west London. I had already arrived in Ust Kut and sat in front of the hotel eating shashlik in the sun. Eventually the two stragglers arrived and checked into the hotel.
There was only 700km of the 4280km BAM road to go. Just over a days ride to Taishet and the end of the line.
At 7:30 am my alarm went off. We had an agreement to meet the young chaps who rented us the apartment and the garage on the other side of town at 8am. We had a few things to sort out before we hit the road; Tony his battery, and my rear mousse had just died, so I needed to get it out and get a tube in the back wheel.
But 8am came and went… as did 8:30, 9:00 and 9:30. I repeatedly called the only number I had for the guys but the number was not answering. This was a bit wierd, but finally at 9:45 someone came to get us. So much for getting an early start. We grabbed all our things and jumped in the car, which took us back to the garage. We got our bikes out and the driver then took me round the corner to the one guy in town who sold petrol. There is no petrol station in Yuktali, a town of 2500 people, but there is a guy who sells it from his yard.
We went back and packed up the bikes, said goodbye to our lift for the morning and then rode the bikes round to the petrol man, Yura. I had been given his number the previous night and tried to call him but ended up having a difficult conversation so thought I would leave it till the morning. The guy, Yura, remembered me from the strange phone conversation and was very apologetic. He asked what grade of fuel we required and then began pouring fuel into the bikes from 20 litre canisters.
While this was going on, Yura’s lady friend Tatiana took a shine to Terry and was showering him with presents for the road. Tatiana spoke a little english and caome out to the region in the 70s when the BAM was being built. She gave us homemade blueberry jam, and some other little souvenirs. She also bandaged up a raw burn on my finger.
After all the fuelling and fussing, we said farewell to Yura and Tatiana and headed back to the centre of town, as Tony needed to buy water for his battery, and the concrete slabs around there would help me get the bike up and the back wheel off.
Terry gave me a hand and we pulled out the rear mousse. I saw why it was knackered. It was ripped open. I didnt realise it by there is actually a tube of air inside the mousse. I assumed it was a solid aerated rubber mass, but it actually is hollow, though the mousse is an inch thick. The ripped mousse meant there was no air pressure in the central tube and the mousse wasnt functioning properly. We put in a tube and got the show back on the road.
It was 12:30 by the time we left Yuktali … hardly ideal and Terry in particular was keen to get the miles done. Barely an hour out of Yuktali and with 27km done, we ran iinto a brick wall. The path crossed the Olyokma River and the river was huge – 500+ metres wide, deep and fast flowing. There was only one bridge, the rail bridge. There was clearly no option so we backtracked a few hundred yards where a track led up to a signalman’s hut by the side of the track.
To our pleasant surprise, the signalman indicated we should use the bridge, but that he had to get permission from his boss first. He called but the boss wasnt around. It was a saturday and he was probably at his dacha picking potatoes. We had no choice but to wait.
I spoke to the old guy about people who came by and he said that there had been another person across recently by motorcycle: An american guy who spoke ok Russian, but with a thick accent, alone, riding a red motorcycle came over from the other side (riding west to east) a week – week and a half ago.
Who is this man?
Eventually, about 3pm, we got the permission from the boss man and we began to go across … Tony went first. But the rail man was not happy tho. He wanted us across and out of the way as soon as possible. Tony, who had earlier carried his panniers over, was riding cautionsly and slowly and missed seeing the old rail man waving his arms to hurry up. After Tony made it over, the rail man stopped Terry and I, saying we cant be so slow. He made us wait while he called a nearby signaller to check for trains, before telling us to go quickly, as there was a train in 5 minutes or so. Terry and I zoomed over the narrow walkway as fast as we dared, clipping the odd pylons with our soft luggage. Eventually we were all over, Tony put his bike back together and we got on with the riding.
By now we were riding mostly along the rail embankment. Often there was fresh areas of ballast neatly spread over the full width of the embankment and we had to do plenty of ballast riding, sometimes skimming the surface of more compackted ballast, and sinking in like sand on newer ballast. On the newer ballast, there was curiously only one mark in the fresh flat surface … another motorcycle trail. Was this our mysterious solo American on the red bike?
There were two more rail bridges we needed to take today. Each one takes time as we need to work out what side of the bridge we need to cross on to end up on the embankment on the other side. We need to find a path up to the embankment, and Tony needs to remove his metal panniers and carry them across.
On the first of these additional rail bridge crossings, Terry and I had gone over while Tony carried his bags over. Then we waited for Tony. he took 10 minutes to climb onto his bike and wwe were wondering what the hell he was doing over there. When Tony finally crossed on his bike, he got barely a third of the way over when we heard a train coming. Terry and I jumped out and began yelling and waving at Tony that a train was coming. But Tony was 200 yards away, didnt understand us and just waved back. The train came and Terry and I just closed our eyes and hoped Tony would be OK.
It was a big long freight train and made one hell of a noise as it thundered past for several minutes. I didnt hear any crashing or smashing sound so assumed Tony was OK. After the train had passed we saw his headlight peeking out from one of the many parapets along the walkway. He gingerly continued his way over the bridge again and we all expressed countless expletives. Terry and I wondering why he had taken so long to cross. (boot adjustment)
We again hit the road and got barely 15 km more down the road before we needed another rail bridge. We turned round to find a track to the embankment. Tony had been slower turning round and must have missed where we turned off the road to make our way to the embankment. We lost contact and it took over an hour for the threesome to find each other and re-unite. By now it was almost 7pm and we decided to get across this rail bridge and begin looking for a place to spend the night.
We made good time after crossing the bridge and quickly racked up 25 more kilometres on the railway embankment. I stopped at kilometre post 1969 (the year of my birth) for a few fotos and noticed my headstock, the Touratech frame and fairing for the front of the bike that held a lot of my electrics, headlights etc was barely still on. It had cracked through on one side completely and was flapping from side to side on the one small piece of metal still holding it on. Ironically Touratech include a strengthening bracket in the kit for heavy duty use, but I didnt use it as I didnt think my needs were heavy duty enough … apparently they are!.
We did another half a dozen kilometres before spotting an ideal railway hut not far from the 1962 KM post and we decided to call it a night there.
The hut was neater than similar ones we had seen and we settled in for our second evening in a BAM railway maintenance workers hut. The huts near here are every 2 or 3 km apart, have a fireplace and a table in them. This one also had some dry newspaper and a small axe for chopping wood. Dinner was powdered mash potato, Tatiana’s blueberry jam and coffee. It was simple and primitive, but we didnt exactly have a lot of choice. At least with a fire going, it was warm.
- – -
The earliest start since Terry joined the program saw the Sibirsky Extreme Project hit the road by about 8:30. We were in an obstacle overcoming mood (since we were already filthy) and we plunged through the rivers, and freezing fog reaching Olyokma 30km later. The last few kilometres into Olyokma was in reasonable condition and even sported a large, non-rotting road bridge. A rarity in these parts!. We stopped for almost an hour while we stocked up on food, drink, warmth and phone charging sockets. When we emerged from the shop to continue the journey, the sun had just burnt through the cold fog and we could continue in sunshine. It was now 11am.
From Olyokma to Khani the road was a different beast. It had been tamed, civilised. On this 55km stretch, all bridgees were in place and serviceable. Our feet didnt need to get wet – or rather didnt need to get any wetter than they already were.
We had done so many water crossings by now, hundreds in fact – many involving pre wading, that
the boots were now permanently wet. Seal skin socks now had holes in them and Terry was concerned we would soon get ‘trenchfoot’. Tony’s waterproof non-stitched boots had delaminated, and his soles flapped about like slippers. Every rush through water split them further. They were now taped up with duct tape.
Khani came up about 1pm. It was a fresh looking town, compared to others we had seen and we agreed to stop and do some repairs. Incredibly, the bodge on my headstock had lasted, but it was on borrowed time. I needed to fix that with metal, and Terry needed to change his front sprocket. He still had his standard issue one one and kept on putting off changing it on the grounds that things should get easier ahead. It was time to save what was left of the standard sprocket for the asphalt roads on the ride home. For now, he needed the lower gearing.
I set about asking some youngsters gathered in the centre of town where I might find an argon welder to weld the alloy headstock. Sadly there was no argon welder in Khani, but they directed me to a chap doing some steel welding. He took a look at it, refused to listen to me that the headstock was alloy (insisting it was steel) and tried to weld it. 10 unsuccessful minutes later, and now with big pits of metal missing from my alloywork, he shrugged his shoulders and gave up.
A local guy who had come to the centre of town to buy beer agreed with my idea of a solution, a steel bracing piece and told me to follow him to his premises. Rim was a local handyman type guy who lived on a dacha on the edge of town. He had been working there with his son sorting out a second hand car. Both dropped everything to tackle this exciting new project … securing my front fairing and framework.
Rim and his son Slava worked for a good couple of hours, and had almost finished a very comprehensive bandage job by 4pm when it was time to send for Tony and Terry. Rim had obviously by now decided that this foreigner wasnt just an interesting metalwork project, he was also a decent enough guy. Might as well invite him and his mates to stay overnight. Tony and Terry arrived and were greeted with home made Pizza and an offer of a hot shower.
A little space is required here to explain the luxury of a hot shower in extreme Siberia. Rim had cold water at his dacha piped from the towns water supply. Into the shower house went the cold water. A branch of it fed through a home made wood fired boiler, made from a gas cylinder, with a small fire underneath it. It was home made, it was simple and it worked perfectly. You cant even imagine things like this in Europe, where regulations stifle everything, but in Siberia, home-made solutions rule. All three of us showered and came out for beer and pizza, while Rim and Slava finished up the metalwork. Slava had to shoot off to work on the railway, and we spent a lovely evening with a truly lovely family from Khani.
It has become increasingly apparent as this BAM leg of the project continues on, that this leg above all is about the amazing hospitality and interactions we have had with local people. The leg has been almost alternating nights of utter harshness, deserted railway cabins, soaking wet miserable evenings, broken with fantastic hospitality when we reach a town. I think back to the fantastic guys in Komsomolsk, Igor and Noi in Gerbi, the dudes of Etyrken, the forest guys at Isa, and now Rim and family in Khani … people who have not just taken us in, but showered us with food, hospitality, and donated time in abundance to help with motorcycle repairs when necessary.
- – -
We left Khani refreshed, knowing the bikes were as good as they were going to be. My front end was now rock solid and Terry had his smaller gearing on the bike. What we didnt know was the condition of the road to Chara. In typical Russian style, questions about the road ahead are met with very vague answers with lots of swearing and talk that its very very bad. We kinda know its very bad, we have ridden thousands of kilometres of it already. What we need to know is; is it better or worse than the bit we have just done.
Sadly it was worse. The bit we had done had all bridges in tact. Less than an hour and 30km out of Khani and we came a cross a large bridge out. There was only one solution for it, a long trek along a shallow but very rocky river. The boots, socks and pants we had dried out meticulously at Rim’s were all going to get wet.
Riverbeds in Siberia had almost always been rocky. It meant getting bogged was less of an issue, but losing balance and falling into the water was high on the list of probabilities. There is an optimum speed for each size of rocks, but occasionally there are nasty surprises … large boulders punctuating a riverbed of otherwise fist sized stones. Crossing was always a risk of getting wet. Terry and I typically tried to blast through, using momentum and power as allies, while Tony picked his way through stone by stone. Different strokes for different folks.
The road to Chara was about 140km but we knocked it off in three and a half hours … pretty good going considering the state of the bridges in this section. Before heading into New Chara for lunch, we had to fuel up, and the regional fuel depot is at Stary (old) Chara, 17km away by asphalt road.
One thing that had been apparent on the more challenging roads, was the fuel economy of the BMWs. As it was with Tadjikistan, when the going got tough and more and more time was spent in low gears, the more advanced fuel injection on the Beemers stood out a mile. There was probably 5-10% better fuel economy out on normal roads compared with Terry’s Yamaha, but on the miserable stuff, with several days tough riding between fuel stops, the BMWs were using 20% less fuel. When Terry bought 17 litres, we bought 14. When Terry bought 21 litres, we bought 17. Its not a question of the economics of it out here, its a question of range and weight. We were putting in 3-4 kgs less weight into the bike each stop, and could go for 80-100km further, when we all had a total fuel capacity of 22 litres. The Yamaha is also a 650cc ish fuel injected single engine (same as the Tenere) with the same sort of horsepower, and overall including luggage, Terry’s bike is 30-40 kgs lighter than Tony’s, yet the economy of the BMW/Rotax engine comes out as the mutts nuts.
We returned to Novy (new) Chara and found a superb cafe opposite the station. it wasnt the setting of course – they are all dark and dingy – but the food. The best stolovaya (canteen) food I have had in months.
By 2:15 we were ready to move, having eaten our fill. It was too early to pull up stumps for the night so we prepared to head on down the road. Only the next town was Kuanda, 150km down the road. It was a gamble, a risk we would nott make it and get caught in the middle of nowhere, but we had to take it.
The scenery after Chara was particularly easy on the eyes. In fact ever since Khani the scenery had been really spectacular. Here we entered a particularly sandy stretch with impressive mountain ranges on the north side of the road / track. About 75km west of Chara we reached a lake district of sorts. Steep green mountainsides, littered with waterfalls that led down to picturesque lakes was where we found ourselves. the air and water were crystal clean. If this was Europe, the land would be worth squillions, but it was Siberia and was deserted.
Bridges were dodgy and again it was an afternoon of considerable water crossings. Each water crossing added to delays. I have long ago lost count of how many pretty bridges, complete or broken we have crossed or skirted on this BAM road … several hundred. I probably take the time to photograph 1 in 7 or 8. The difficult crossings and bogs never get photographed as I am always totally focussed on just getting through.
Rain began pouring down as we approached the golden spike where the BAM tracks first were joined in 1984. We sheltered in a railway hut for half an hour while the storm blew over, then took off again alongside the railway tracks down a very steep hill. We past a train really huffing and puffing on its way up. Our railside track down was smooth and fast, but at the bottom we hit another mile or so of ballast riding. Tony had not adapted to riding in loose scree and struggled, just as the rain came down. Terry and I ran for shelter in a nearby station (Barvukha) for rail staff only and the rain bucketed down.
Tony finally approached the station as the rains eased, but within sight of the station, veered off the good line and up onto the edge of the track, bobbing up and down as he rode on the edge of the sleepers, ultimately falling onto the track. Terry and I mounted our bikes and zoomed down to help Tony clear his bike from the track before a train cleaned it up and then I returned to talk to the station mistress who had some advice for the road ahead to Kuanda. We needed to take the road rather than the rail embankment she felt and then 8km before Kuanda we get to a river where there is no road crossing … only the rail bridge. The rail bridge has security, so we would need to talk to the security to see if we can get let across.
It was still 40km to Kuanda and was by now slowing getting dark, and of course still raining. I wanted to press on to a Hotel as I was totally saturated through and through, but Tony and Terry did not want to ride in the dark, so we agreed to look for a hut. We rode on down the rail embankment till we saw a suitable crossing point, crossed the tracks and then continued up the potholed road in now near darkness. After 10km or so we came across an abandoned building jammed into the 8 yards between the road and the rail track and in darkness decided that this would be our home for the night.
The building was a concrete place that seemed to have been built for the railway, but had now been trashed. Every square inch of floor was covered in broken bits of timber and plasterboard. We lit up a fire, cleared some space to sleep and cook and feasted while the rain poured down outside, and the BAM freight trains thundered by just 2-3 metres from the building.
We had slept in some dodgy, dirty, tiny buildings on this BAM journey, but this one takes the biscuit. It was the first wreck of a building and had obviously been used by train drivers as a place to take a dump from time to time. Fortunately no time recently. We got to sleep about 1am.
- – -
the day started with a fire. The fire last night had gone some way to drying our saturated clothing, but more was needed. Besides, the siberian nights were beginning to get cold indeed. Daytimes were still fine, but the early mornings were very chilly. The fire helped sort all of the above issues. Thanks to the fire and the need to warm up, (and the difficulty packing up and getting dressed in a shell of a building with broken plasterboard everywhere) we didnt get going until 10:30.
The first stop, and it came up within 20 km, was the Kuanda River Bridge. We had been told by the lady in the station late yesterday that its the onyl way across the river, as the river is too deep, and the road bridge is out. Well we could now see the road bridge was totally out, so all we had to do was get permission from the bridge security guy.
This chap was not a happy camper. He was angry that we had even walked across his bridge to talk to him. I explained our plight and he said he needed to talk to the boss. It was now 11:30.
I waited, and waited and waited ….. and waited and waited … and waited and finally at 14:45, the promised big cheese from Kuanda, had a few words with us and let us cross the bridge in exchange for a present for the bosses wife. It was almost 3pm before we were underway. We had done just 20km so far today. I wanted to get to Taksimo. We had some miles to do. 8km later and we arrived on asphalt. This was the road around the edge of Kuanda. It has asphalt because Kuanda was tarted up for the celebration of the completion of the BAM rail laying in 1984.
We didnt stop in Kuanda, they dont have fuel there anyway and we needed to do the 100 km to Taksimo ASAP … the biggest obstacle ahead was the Vitim River – the biggest river we will have crossed since the Amur. The Vitim was just under 40 km from Kuanda and we made to the beast about 4:10.
I was immediatelly awestruck. The sight before me was enough to make grown men go weak at the knees. The muddy trail we had been following suddenly crested out and ahead of us was a bone chilling sight – the Vitim River Bridge. The Vitim river here was over half a kilometre wide. It was flowing at a ferocious rate of knots. Never in my life have I seen such a huge body of water moving so fast. The water temperature was probably about 2 degrees C. The sight of this awesome river itself could make a man’s jaw drop.
And then there was the bridge … or rather THE bridge. There can be few if any bridges anywhere in the world to compare with this one for terrifying intimidation and fear generation. Fifteen metres (50 feet) above the freezing swirling Vitim was a very narrow strip of roadway made of railway sleepers and odd strips of timber. The roadway was barely 2 metres wide, very uneven, and 15 metres above certain death. There was perhaps one chance in 100 that you would survive a fall into that river, laden down in motorcycle gear.
It was clear that we cant ride it. One slip on the controls, one tyre catching the side of a plank and its curtains. The only option was to push the bikes over. Terry didnt want to think about it and just started walking his bike across the bridge without looking down. I am a hard man to faze, but I was weak at the knees and my whole upper body was tense. I tried not to look at anything but the edge-less roadway and also began pushing. With almost twice the luggage as Terry, my bike was more top heavy, but a similar overall weight due to the lighter basic bike. But Tony had the combined weight of the heaviest bike and the heaviest luggage. This, having to push a bike over half a kilometre over a narrow frightening platform, was the wages of heavy steel boxes.
Terry was flying across. Perhaps 15 minutes was all it took him. I was still only about 60% of the way over when I saw Terry’s bike park off to the side of the embankment. I looked behind me and saw Tony struggling perhaps only 20% of the way across. ‘Those damn boxes could kill him’ I thought. I was in no position to do anything. My upper arms were burning and I was beginning to feel light headed. I stopped for a minute or two. This was no place to feel faint. The uneven sleepers made it impossible to put my sidestand down and even as I rested I needed to balance the bike. I continued on, over a raised expansion hump. I fired the bike up and power walked it over the 30 cm rise. The energy to push it up the hump wasnt there.
I stopped to take in the view and see where I was. I should nt have taken in the view. I was still very high above the icy swirling waters on a rickety platform of wet, oily timber. I was now 80% of the way. I saw Terry smiling 120 metres ahead, and Tony still just a faint dot hundreds and hundreds of metres behind. I wondered if he had even moved since I last looked.
Finally, with triceps about to give up on me, I was just 20 yards from the west bank and Terry came out brandishing a camera to take a few snaps and then help push me the last few yards. I parked up the bike and looked back at the bridge. I felt an amazing sense of achievement just for having made it across that bridge. Anyone who has crossed that bridge is worthy, truly worthy. I want to shake the hand of anyone who has pushed a bike (or ridden) across that bridge. That bridge is truly Sibirsky Extreme.
I was humbled and exhausted by that crossing. The scale and power of the river was so intimidating. I cant put it into words, the sense of relief at having made it over. I almost collapsed with exhaustion, as much from nervous tension as the physical effort I imagine. Before I had much of a chance to take stock of where Tony was, Terry yelled out to grab my clothes, which I had strewn over my bike so I could cool down, as a storm was on the way.
I grabbed my things and we ran under the bridge as the storm moved in at 50 km/h. The rainfront sped across the river and drenched me as I ran to join Terry beneath the bridge. Within 30 seconds we had gone from good light and high cloud to low cloud dumping rain. More of nature humiliating us. The skies were almost black within another minute or so and in the near black skies I saw a huge bolt of lightning smash into the railway bridge. 3 seconds later probably the loudest thunder crash I had ever heard. I hoped Tony was OK up there somewhere half way across the bridge. movement was impossible in this. We could only hope had had laid the bike down and had braced himself. The wind picked up faster and faster until it must have been a 80 – 100 km/h wind. Poor Tony. It was freezing cold and super windy where we were, on the shore under the bridge, he was out there, 10 metres above a 600 metre wide river in and incredible burst of wind that lasted at least 3 minutes. As the wind died down it started hailing. Nature was making us look like idiots and imbeciles. We could hardly have looked smaller. After about 15 minutes the extremes died down and it settled into just a rain storm. No more lighting, no more thunder, no more hail and no more gale force winds – just rain.
Terry and I waited for the rain to die down before we came out to search for Tony but before we could emerge from our meagre shelter, I heard noises coming from the bridge above. Terry ran around and up and there was Tony. Drenched from head to toe, but his bike and himself had made it across the Vitim.
I have seen balls in my time, but never anything like that. That river, that bridge, that storm, and Tony made it across by himself. The guy has nuts of tungsten.
It was now 5pm … we needed to regroup fast and push on. There was no more than 3 hours of daylight and we had over 60km to go to Taksimo. The last 600 metres had taken us almost an hour. the road leading on from the Vitim towards Taksimo was terrible. It was difficult to get out of first gear. I wanted to get up on the rail embankment but Tony was still keen to stay on the road. Terry was neutral. Out of respect for his amazing storm crossing of the Vitim, I stayed with the road. The final straw came 45 minutes after the bridge with just 8 km done when Tony’s back wheel became entangled in wire halfway across a deep water puddle across the whole road. It took us another 45 minutes to get the wire out and I insisted we take the first good chance to get on the embankment.
That chance came after a surprisingly long 30 minutes at a level crossing. I sped off down the embankment at 60km/h and we soon had done as much distance (15km) on the embankment in 20-25 minutes as we had in the previous 2 hours on the road. There was barely an hour of daylight left and we were 30km from Taksimo when we turned back onto the road. Here the road joined a road to nearby Ust Muya and was in much better condition. We kept zooming along at 60 km/h determined to reach Taksimo, me with one hand holding my malfunctioning key.
We arrived in Taksimo just after 8:30. Oh the joy!. Taksimo was a big town ! A lady stopped us on seeing our bikes and asked what we needed. “a hotel” I replied … and she replied that she would lead us there. We followed through the streets of Taksimo, drawn out over 5km between an old town going back hundreds of years, and a new town, built by the Soviets for the BAM.
The hotel was full, and the other one suggested wouldnt take foreigners. By now the traffic police had taken an interest in us, but in a good way. The Policeman knew a small hotel near the station and led us there. With the police opening doors, we got a room. The place was simple but had hot shower, and a cafe … and food was ready and waiting when we emerged from the shower.
Taksimo was being good to us!
- – -
The day started with a small breakfast in the hotel, in which I cheekily asked the staff if getting some laundry done was out of the question. It was definately not. So after breakfast and a wash we left a pile of stinky mildewy clothes in the bathroom and went out to get our bikes. The little lady who had been taking us to hotels yesterday re-appeared and took us searching for what we needed today; oil for Terry, a mechanic for me and a shoe repairer for Tony. We got Terry’s oil and I was shown the repairer and told to return at 2pm. Tony’s boots were unfixable by the local chaps and he was told to buy a new pair!
It began to warm up and we were by now dry after our morning in Taksimo. We went to look at another problem, Tony’s malfunctioning immobiliser. IF this couldnt be fixed it was a ‘stick it on a train to the nearest BMW dealer – Krasnoyarsk’ job. A lot of head scratching was followed by Terry’s suggestion that we check the batteries on both zappers. Neither could operate the immobiliser. On opening the remote transmitters it was clear this wasa probably the problem. Both were wet and showing signs of corrosion inside, particularly round the battery terminals. A couple of new batteries and that problem was solved.
Terry found a fetching new italian style black roll neck sweater, as he is lacking a little in the warm clothes department. Then we fuelled up and went down to the mechanic, Sasha, about 2pm. Tony returned to the hotel to change his rear brake pads, Terry borrowed an oil pan and began changing his oil, and Sasha pulled apart my ignition barrel to try and sort out my ignition switch problem.
The last 30 km into Taksimo last night I had ridden with one hand on the key. The contacts seem to have rotated slightly, so that there was no connection when the key was in the ‘on’ position and I needed to try and balance the key part way between the on and off position….only every time I hit bump, the key jerked off and onto the ‘on’position, which had no contact.
After an hour and a half, all was done. Terry had new oil in his bike and I had a functioning ignition switch. Sasha refused payment for his time, and Terry and I said our farewells and returned to the hotel to see Tony finishing up his bike.
The laundry was all done and dried. Our lazy day of rest and relaxation in Taksimo had been sorely needed but now the bikes were in good shape, we were well fed, clothes were dry for the first time in ages and we settled down to dinner and beer at our little hotel.
- – -
The ladies of the little hotel gave us some extra food to take with us on the road and we packed up the bikes and left Taksimo soon after 9:30am. The main road out of Taksimo heads North to Bodaibo, and the continuation of the BAM road is a small turnoff off the Bodaibo Road (another potential Siberian motorcyling target). From here we were on roads that Artyom (the guy with the Africa Twin, that we met in Irkutsk about 2 months ago) had ridden. Artyom was from the Bodaibo region.
Tony had an off early in the day. We think one of his side boxes worked loose, fell off and dragged him and the bike into the shrubs at the side of the road. A few of the russian guys who helped sort him out told us there was a river ahead we could not cross. Hmm … dont these guys know what we have been thru already! If there is a river, we will cross it.
Halfway to Severomuisk we were stopped by an oncoming 4WD. It was a guy from Bodaibo. He immediately asked us if we knew Artyom. He assumed that if were in this part of the world and had motorcycles on this road, we might know Artyom. As it happens, we did, and passed on our greetings.
The road was very much a continuation of what had been before. I did notice tho that between Taksimo and Severomuisk, the bridges were all serviceable, though several of them had partially collapsed – the road surface of the bridges was still useable, at least by motorcycles.
As we arrived in Severomuisk we were stopped again by the first foreign travellers we had seen on the BAM road since leaving Vanino … a pair of Polish (of course) 4WDs, driving to Tynda as part of an expedition. (www.syberia-mongolia.pl) For some reason, maybe because you need the language to really get off the beaten track in Siberia and its very similar language to Polish, most adventuring down by foreigners in Siberia seems to be by Poles!. I pointed this out to the guys and they countered with, ‘oh do you know about the Motosyberia guys?’ Ah yes indeed. Apparently these guys had met the original Motosyberia project 2 years ago in Kirgizia.
They asked many questions about the road ahead, and told us there was one broken bridge between here and Lake Baikal. One??? I told then there were hundreds behind us. I suspect they thought I was exaggerating, but they will see. We told them to be prepared and have the cameras rolling when you approach the Vitim River Bridge!
It was 2:15pm when we shook hands and continued on our merry way. There was still 130km to Novy Uoyan. That was the start of the official road … a road that is properly maintained and even according to rumour, asphalt as far as Lake Baikal. I wanted to get to Baikal tonight and told the guys to put the heads down and motor!.
Severomuisk is also the location of one of the longest rail tunnels in the world. It took decades to build. While it was being built the BAM used an additional line that runs up and over a pass, and the road follows that old line. The line over the pass is still in place, presumably as a backup. The tunnel passes an earthquake zone so it make sense to have a backup.
The road over the pass was in excellent condition and I really wondered how the Poles in the 4WDs would cope. They had told me the road behind them was bad. Man are they in for a shock as to what lies ahead. I told them that they will need to use a few rail bridges – there is no way around it for at least two of the river crossings – the Kuanda River and the Olyokma River.
The road on to Novy Uoyan continued much like the road had been to Severomuisk. It was poor, but far better than most of the last few weeks and importantly all bridges were serviceable for light vehicles. We found the one broken nbridge the Poles had talked about. It wasnt even broken! Just a little bent. Those boys are in for a tough few weeks. Poles are tough characters, but I bet they resort to the train! Lets see.
About 7pm we pulled into Novy Uoyan, a fuel station and the start of the ‘prepared’ road. We sniffed around for a hotel but were told there is none in town. That sealed it … it was Severobaikalsk or bust tonight. We filled up and hit the asphalt road out of town. Sadly the asphalt only lasted 30km, but the dirt road after that was a graded gravel road. We needed to do as much of it as possible while the daylight allowed. After 75 more kilometres of dirt we were back on asphalt. Soon after the town of Kichera, in the twilight, we saw Baikal, illuminated by a large glowing moon. It was a beautiful sight … something Terry had been talking about … ‘getting to Baikal’ since leaving vanino.
Half an hour hour of beauful lakeside driving later and we had arrived at the big smoke, Severobaikalsk, first little city since Tynda, and found ourself a lakeside hotel with hot showers and comfy beds! The hard road was now over. The remaining 1000km of the BAM road was all prepared road, passing through the small cities of Ust Kut and Bratsk.
We had arrived in the tiny BAM forestry town of Isa late on Friday afternoon. within an hour of arriving we had satiated our thirsts and hungers and met the senior chaps who ran the town’s main private business, a logging company. It seemed to me that in Isa you either worked for the railway or the logging company. There were only 300 people there in the town, and it was a pretty grim looking place.
But the logging guys took us in, and housed us in a cabin. We found out from the loggers that we would be able to take a train to Fevralsk on Monday. That gave us the weekend to consider any alternatives. Fevralsk was only 90 km away … but we had no reliable information on the road and the previous 65 km had taken us 3 days !!!.
The day was rounded off with an intensely hot sauna and wash. Nice to wash our reeking bodies after three days of sweating in the rain.
- – -
Saturday started with the realisation that in the night someone had taken Terry’s and Tony’s GPS units off their bikes. This was ridiculous in a town of 300 people, that effectively had no roads in or out. Someone must have been drunk or completely stupid. Within a few hours Valera, the boss of the logging company, had tracked down and returned the GPS units.
Terry needed to look at his oil. We had ridden a full day since his bike swallowed all that swamp water. We were still entertaining thoughts of riding to Fevralsk as Tony’s spirits had recovered rapidly with a few beers and a the prospect of a days rest and maybe even dry, riding gear by the end of the day.
Sadly, Terry’s water-oil emulsion had not separated. It was still milk both in his sump and his oil tank. There was no oil in Isa. There were barely any general stores. With his oil in such bad shape, the prospect of a ride to Fevralsk was shelved completely and now knowing that we would be in Isa for all of tomorrow as well, we decided to do laundry at the camp’s very basic self serve laundromat. We would have 2 nights and a day to dry the clothes out in the cabin.
In the evening we cooked up a Sibirsky Extreme Stew, from a few ingredients the kitchen had thrown our way and a few bits and pieces we had collected from the towns tiny shops. We had a tin of peas, a tin of corn, a few potatoes, a few cucumbers, some chicken stock and some pelmeni. We boiled up the potatoes then threw the rest in for one of the finest stews any of us can remember. It was a recipe that just worked!
- – -
The logging camp’s number 2 man, Vadim, came around early in the morning. He had arrannged a full train schedule all the way to Tynda, if we wanted it. It would be no less than 5 freight trains, and each train involved us unloading the bikes from one train and loading them onto another. Hmmm… something else to think about
The day was just spent in recovery mode and drying clothes.
- – -
Well after waiting two days, our train to Fevralsk was due today. We packed up the gear and were ready to go by 11am … but had to sit around till 2:30 to head down to the train station with Valera the logging boss. I spoke with Valera and the guys down at the station and it seems the Poles had stayed at the fire station here … a different lodging from us for a change. They had to wait 3 days for a train according to the locals.
By 3pm the local utility train appeared, consisting of a flat bed car and a passenger car. We pushed the bikes up a couple of wooden planks and on to the flat bed and realised we were the only people getting on the train. Surely they hadnt put on this train especially for us?
As the train pulled out of Isa we got a good view of the road to Fevralsk, as it ran alongside the track, no more than 50 yards from the train track.
The train hadnt been exclusively for us, as it stopped to pick up railway maintenance workers a number of times on the way to Fevralsk. By the time we got to Fevralsk the sole train carriage was reasonably full. Our fare for the two hour ride, including bikes, was 80 rubles each … less than 2 EUR.
As for the road from Isa to Fevralsk, for anyone mad enough to get to Isa in the future … the road onwards to Fevralsk is rideable. Its many times better than the road between Isa and Etyrken. All rivers have serviceable bridges. I could see no holes in the road. There were large waterholes covering the whole road, but all looked either navigable or able to be ridden around. As with every road in Siberia, how difficult the road is depends entirely on weather conditions over the past few days. A week of fine weather and that road could be done 2 hours. A week of rain and its a 2 day slog. As it was when we saw it, I would have estimated it as a reasonable days ride.
I had found out a bit more about this stretch of the BAM road from the old hands around Isa while we had waited there. The road appears on every atlas of Russia because once upon a time (soviet times) there was a serviceable road here. In fact it was the first serviceable road across Russia. Now the road is selectively maintained by some regional councils, but many sections such as Etyrken to Isa had seen absolutely no maintenance in 20 years. Stretches like that have deteriorated to the point that no 4WD would be able to drive them. Even my beloved Wazziks / Buhankas cannot drive these roads. They are now exclusively the preserve of the huge 6WD Urals, Zils, Kamaz and Kraz trucks – and the odd eccentrics on motorcycles.
It says something about Russian road attlases too. The better ones are very quick to update when new roads are built, but no-one drives these roads to check as to when they fall below a standard worthy of including in an atlas. It was the same with the ghost city of Kadykchan. New town are quickly added to new atlases, but old ones are not removed … as it is with the roads.
We arrived in Fevralsk, where a contact of Vadim, the number 2 man in Isa, met us at the station and helped us get the bikes down onto the platform. We were led into the office of the main man at the station who listened to us and tried to organise the succession of 4 frieght trains to take us on to Tynda. In the end I just decided it was too hard, checked with the boys to see if they were up for riding to Tynda and then left to find the petrol station, and hotel / cafe type place.
The decision was made. We would ride to Tynda via the Trans-Siberian highway, then resume on the BAM road after Tynda.
At the ‘hotel’, there was an outdoor shower, but it did feature hot water. It was the first shower we had enjoyed since Vanino! mmmm
- – -
Today is my son’s birthday, but no point calling him first thing in the morning, it will be midnight in Europe. I packed up my gear and headed into town to find Terry some oil. We needed to get the ‘milk’ out of his engine ASAP and get some oil in. I found 4 litres of 10W-40 mineral oil, it was for diesel engines, but it would have to do. Terry was happy to get any proper oil in there, at least to get him to Tynda where we should be able to find some good oil.
A quick oil change was done in the yard of the Hotel. Terry noticed even after the oil change and running the engine a few minutes, there were still traces of white emulsion in his engine oil, so this oil could serve as a rinse over the next few days.
We had breakfast and hit the road about 10:30. It was about 300km back to the main Trans-Siberian road. It rained on and off and the temperature was cooler today. We had to stop several times to increase the amount of clothing we were wearing, but we still made the Trans-Siberian about 2:30pm. It was asphalt. Stunning new asphalt that would not be out of place on a new autobahn.
Terry by now had gone 4 hours without food and that was beyond his limit. We pulled over for fuel and food.
It was now 3:30pm and we wanted to get as far as possible while this road surface was so immaculate. We charged on at full speed in on again – off again light rain. The road was incredibly good. Freshly laid and in many areas unpainted. Road workers were putting finishing touches on all over it. There was one section of about 30 km that detoured onto an older asphalt road alongside the Trans-Siberian Railway (full of freight trains), but soon reverted to the immaculate new road. About 7pm, and with about 350km covered on the new road, we were not far from Magdagachi. It had been my most optimistic target for the day. Here the asphalt abruptly ran out and we were on a 50km/h gravelly, potholed roadbed … awaiting asphalt.
We battled on to Magdagachi, passing cars struggling at half our speed on the poor surface. We were all cold and wet and had a team talk about what the next move was. We had enough daylight to probably make it to Never, and the start of the M56 federal road north to Tynda. Terry just wanted to get dry and warm. Tony and I were in favour of pushing on … and so we pushed on. But there had been no fuel stations immediately following Magdagachi, as there had been around many towns the road ran past, and before long all three of us had fuel reserve lights on. We decided to play it safe and return the 20 km back to Magdagachi, via the 5km mud track that linked the town with the new highway. We had done over 725km today, the second biggest day of the whole project. Considering over 350km had been on dirt roads, it is indicative of how good the new asphalt Trans-Siberian road is!. In a year or two, the whole country will be linked by asphalt and a ride across Siberia just wont be the same. People will NEED the BAM road, just to spice up trans Russian journeys
- – -
We awoke in our hotel, the Magdagachi sports club in the centre of town, to the sound of a downpour outside. It wasnt just rain, it was a total deluge of monsoonal proportions. Tynda was less than 400 km away, a day’s ride over dirt roads, but it was impossible to even go outside, let alone contemplate riding in this nightmare. We did the only thing we could … we sat and waited.
By 10:30am there was an easing in the rain and I told the guys that we had to move. We packed up and by the time the bikes were all packed the rain had stopped. By the time we refuelled, the sun was peeking through.
We headed on down the semi asphalted road and stopped at Taldan for Terry’s breakfast.
While the Trans-Siberian road this morning had been almost all gravel, it was in the process of being asphalted. As soon as we turned onto the M56 north, we were on a proper graded gravel road. This was exactly the sort of road that ‘Chopper’ Tony loved as it was reminiscent of his rallying roads. He reads these roads particularly well and tore off at 110 km/h with Terry and I struggling to keep up.
We refuelled at Solovevsk and continued on, tho at a reduced pace. There had been one or two unexpected bumps in the road that had caught us by surprise (and potentially damaged our rims), so it was 80 km/h from Solovyesvsk to Tynda. We reached Tynda, the capital of the BAM system at 4pm and made our way to the Hotel Yunost, which we were told is the finest hotel in town. When we arrived, we were greeted by a tour group of German and Dutch tourists, pausing here on a BAM railway tour.
The Police knocked on my room soon after I checked in and offered to house the bikes just down the road in the Police garage. It was an offer too good to refuse, especially as it had come from the boss man himself. We rode the bikes to the station then returned to settle into a a night in the first proper town we had seen since Komsomolsk and the last we will see till Severobaikalsk. Tynda has about 45,000 people and the town is all about the BAM.
- – -
Terry finally got the eggs sunny-side-up he had been craving for the past week, and we dropped off some clothes and riding boots that needed repairs at repair shops in the hotel building. Next, we hit the local market, just up the hill from the hotel. Tony and I bought new shoes and socks as the others had by now died.
We had some repair work to do on the bikes, tho Terry decided against changing his oil again. He was now happy with his diesel oil. Tony had to shuffle his front tyre around and I had some welding to do on my rear rack. When I stripped the gear off the bike I got a hell of a shock. The rack needed welding in a dozen places. The stresses off the BAM road had really taken a toll on my poor rack. The police decided it was too big a job for their handyman electric welder and took me down to a local argon welder who went nuts for an hour bolstering my rear rack with weld.
I was happy to get that all sorted before we hit the road again tomorrow. The team headed out for a Chinese meal to finish off our one rest and repair day in Tynda.
- – -
After all that welding, I had a fair bit of work to do to put the bike back together, and the police garage didnt open until 9am. By the time I got the back together, we fuelled up, got some auto parts, filled up with enough food to last the day and hit the road it was 11:30.
The first 200 km was pretty uneventful and good graded gravel road. We arrived in Lopcha at the end of that good road about 2pm and stopped for a drink. After Lopcha the road began to get more interesting. The road was far less prepared, and in many places ran upon an embankment built for a second track, when they ever get around to putting in a second track.
Now the road and track were running alongside the Nyukzha River. Before Lopcha, all bridges had been present and serviceable. After Lopcha that was no longer the case. Some bridges were useable by all vehicles, some by light vehicles only and some were unuseable full stop … derelict.
As a result of the varying road conditions there were now often two concurrent roads; one the original BAM auto road built in the era of BAMstroi (BAM building) mostly the 1970s and 80s, and a second less used route on the unused half of the railway embankment. We alternated between the two. The proper road, when it was good was quicker, but the railway embankment was consistent in terms of maintenance.
The other difference in the BAM here compared to East of Tynda (apart from the embankment being built for two tracks) was that the bridges were a little wider and featured a bit more space for a bike to squeeze alongside the track on the walking track.
Our speed slowed down from the 80-100 km/h we had been doing before Lopcha to more like 50 km/h or less. There were a few curious pieces of infrastucture; 3 almost unused new concrete road bridges built across the Nuandzha River.
About 6pm, and getting near Yuktail, our destination for the day and my chain snapped and jammed up in my rear wheel. We were at a river crossing wondering how to get across. Some picnicing (vodkaing) truck drivers on the other side indicated the river was too deep. Tony had walked up to the rail bridge to survey the surrounding countryside, and seen a new concrete road bridge. While Terry and I tackled my chain, Tony went to explore this bridge he had seen.
The drunken truck drivers made it across the river in their trucks, just in time to help us with tools to flare the rivets on the chain joining piece (a hammer and a centre punch). The chain was pretty tired long before it gave up, but I have only one spare to get me home. That dead chain had been on the bike 12,000km, but it had been almost all dirt roads in that time. I was upset that it had died on me, but I guess I should be happy with it considering the circumstances.
Tony returned having found a route across, via an old 2.5 tonne limit bridge and we continued on.
As we got closer to Yuktali, our first scheduled fuel stop, we came to a river crossing that was not going to be fordable. As there was no other option apparent, it seemed an ideal time to try the railway bridge crossing trick. We found a path up to the railway embankment and then shut off the bikes to examine first hand how this could work.
Tony’s survey indicated he needed to remove his side boxes and carry them over. Terry and I were more optimistic with our setups. Tony carried his over while Terry made a run for it. We figured at worst, as we were slightly lower down than train level, even if a train came, we should be OK for clearance. It might be bloody hairy annd frightening to have a siberian freight train clattering along at 60 km/h next to your head, but as long as it was next to your head and bike, then there’s no real problem.
The hardest part was getting onto and off the bridge. Often concrete lips left a bit of a fall down to the bridge walking track level, and a bit of a challenge on the other side.
But we all made it across pretty much uneventfully. I lost a pannier 2/3 of the way across as I clipped a bridge frame. Terry recovered it and while Tony went back for his bike, I re-attached the pannier, securing it with large cable ties.
The sun was still shining, just, when we made it into Yuktali about 8:30pm. We headed for the centre of the new town and pulled up at a cluster of small shops. A group of young chaps clustered around asking about us and the bikes. I countered by asking where can three tired foreigners stay. One of the young chaps was enterprising enough to rent us his apartment. And guy offered a garage. All to be paid for, but we were in no mood to argue.
A lot of faffing about later and about 11pm we finally were in an apartment, wet socks off, checking phones for messages, and boiling up some noodles.
- – -
After a day in which Tony’s bike was put back together around midnight, complete with his custom made new shock end piece, emblazoned from the russian workshop with “From Russia with Love” and Terry slept until 5pm; the 8th of August, 1 year anniversary of the opening of the Beijing Olympics, was a day for whhich we had resonably high hopes of (a) getting back on the road and (b) getting away relatively early. We had been marooned 2 days in Komsomolsk without moving and were all a bit restless.
I have to say that the guys in Komsomolsk have really taken Russian biker hospitality to new heights. We had arrived on their doorstep as a trio of hapless adventurers with no contacts in the city and a badly damaged bike (that ought to be taken to a BMW approved technician for a replacement rear shock to be fitted). 48 hours later and Tony’s bike had a remanufactured shock cap, a rebuilt front wheel and numerous other bits and pieces of Komsomolsky ‘tuning’. On top of all that we had been housed for 3 nights in Yegor and Oksana’s flat.
The incredible thing about bikers in Russia is that if you ride a bike, you are as good as family to them. There is no division between sports bike riders, chopper riders, off-road riders …. a motorcyclist is a brother to another motorcyclist. No rivalry between clubs, no fighting over territory etc. A biker is a biker and he is your brother. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you ever see a Russian biker in your own country, treat him like a brother, because I can guarantee he would do the same for you.
So by midday we are down at the garage sorting out the packing. There was a bit of drama re ATMs. Terry had a badly malfunctioning debit card, and his bank refuses to acknowledge there is anything wrong with the card or international settings on the card, when there blatantly is.
Lots and lots of lots of photos followed before we said goodbye to Yegor, Oksana, Kostya, Kolya, Vadim and the gang, then Yegor, Oksana and Kostya rode with us 45km out of town to the edge of the asphalt. The dirt began again and we three, we happy three, were out on our own again on the open dirt roads of Siberia. The first town of any decent size from Komsomolsk was Beryozovy, about 200 km to the North East. As it was 4pm when we left Yegor, Oksana and Kostya, I felt that would be a good first target for Team Sibirsky Extreme today.
Tony’s bike was humming along and the only problem was avoiding dust. We found if we ride as a trio, with two bike forward, on the flanks of the road, and the third bike close behind and riding in the centre of the road, we can all ride in clean air. Its fine until there is oncoming traffic!
With due respect to recent mishaps, we rode at a slightly more sedate pace today. Conserving the bikes, fuel and ourselves would be useful over the BAM road. We made the fuel station at Beryozovy soon after 6pm, then went into town to find a general store. The plan was to camp tonight. Terry is allegedly a camping expert / afficianado and was keen to show us his skills. So we stocked up on camping essentials – beer and chocolate – then headed out of town.
About 25km out of town we found a spot that Terry gave the thumbs up to. The road crossed a nice clean stream flowinig over rocks. Not deep, crystal clear and with enough of a clearing to park the bikes and set up 3 tents.
As soon as we pulled up we were set upon by mosquitoes. Not just mosquitoes but the fiercest most numerous mosquitoes of the whole trip. We had to get a fire going, and fast! A look down at the riding trousers was a frightening experience. There were no less than 100 mosquitoes over each of our trousers.
Slowly but surely, as the fire settled down, the mosquitoes became fewer in number and we had a chance to bathe in the stream. A text came in from Jun (yes we have on and off mobile coverage here amazingly). Jun had made Chita! Good lad. He is on asphalt now. We are all really proud of the guy. He couldnt ride 100 yards on dirt when we met him, now he has done over 1000km on dirt – alone. Tony and I had both noticed that when we gave him advice, he really listened. I mean really listened.
Back at the campsite, the as the beers flowed and the sun set, dinner was prepared and sadly the mosquitoes came back for a final fling. I surrendered and crawled inside the tent, yelling abuse both in english and russian at the little buggers. Terry, the camping afficianado who froze his nuts off bathing in the stream and then had them bitten by mosquitoes as he dressed, now sees the value in cheap russian hotels and scrounged accomodation. This isnt like camping in England!
- – -
Several times in the night, we were gently reminded that we had camped 10 metres from a BAM railway bridge, and boy do the Russians put together a long train.
By 8:30am we were all awake in our tents, talking to each other about getting out. But each of us just sat in our respective tents, staring at the mosquitoes waiting in the tent ‘lobbies’. About 9:30 we finally got enough resolve to decide that mosquitoes would not defeat the Sibirsky Extreme Project, but it was definately a close run thing.
We made good progress on the road until just after 1pm, when we hit a bridge under construction, over the Amgun River. The bridge didnt reach across the river and the river was too deep and too fast to cross. We were going nowhere.
We walked over to the railway bridge where there was an armed guard watching over the rail bridge, but he just barked at us to get away. The road bridge constuction guys, if there were any, were no-where to be seen. I tried to walk across the river but the current was too strong. We had little option but to wait.
An hour or so later, right on 2pm, the construction gang appeared. We met a few of the guys and were introduced to the boss man … head of the construction team. He reckoned a Ural truck, which lives in the first village on the other side of the river, will come over in 2 hours and we should be able to buy a lift with him. And with no other option, we waited.
4pm came and the bridge workers finished up for the day. The boss man walked past us saying the Ural will be here soon. By 4:15 the site was deserted again, just the 3 crazy English motorcyclists waiting.
Terry and I walked over the 3/4 constructed bridge to see if there was any way to survey a route across the river. But it was too deep and the current too strong. We did see the track leading away on the other side of the River though, and it was not at all encouraging. Overgrown, and where no grader had been in decades, the BAM road ahead of us was looking like hard work.
About 5:30pm and some of the construction workers return, in a 6WD grader, towing a trailer. They offered to take us over the river for 4000 rubles (90 EUR). It was a pretty hefty sum, but I understood thats what the Ural truck guy charged, so we had nothing to lose.
All 3 bikes were pushed up some planks onto the trailer and with about 10 construction workers along for the ride, the grader set off across the river. Only it didnt go straight across, it went upstream about 300 metres and crossed there. It was a good crossing spot and the river was not so deep there, but the current was fierce.
By the time all the bikes were unloaded and re-assembled (bags had been taken off to help get them on the trailer) it was 6:30pm. We were across the river and there was no chance to get to any town of any size tonight. The road on this side of the river was a different animal to the road we left behind. It was a track, not much more than that. So far, from Vanino to the Amgun Bridge, the BAM road had been graded gravel (and asphalt from Lidoga to Komsomolsk), now it was taking on a different character entirely. It wasnt a road for 80-110 km/h, it was a track for 20-30 km/h.
We rode for an hour, in which we covered about 25km, when we arrived at the small village of Gerbi. I spoke to the lads and said that sure we have an hour or so of daylight left, but if we go any further, we will be camping with the mosquitoes again, and no-body wanted that. Terry looked at the abandoned buildings by the road and asked aloud if we had just missed World War III. But we did see a couple of new vehicles around, so there must be people around somewhere. We pulled off the main road and found a track into Gerbi and soon realised the village was not quite as deserted as it first looked from the main road.
A lady directed us to the Mayor’s flat and while trying to find the Mayor to ask where a couple of tired Englishmen could rest for the night (all we needed was a mosquito free room), a guy speaking very good english approached us and asked if we need a place to stay for the night. I almost bit his hand off. The guys name was Igor and he directed us back to his house, When we got there we saw a huge red Honda cruiser in his front yard. This was surreal. This was a semi-abandoned village in the middle of the taiga forest, crumbling concrete and mud everywhere, the only roads in and out of town were 4WD tracks and here was a 1000cc Honda cruiser! We had stumbled across the only biker on the BAM for hundreds of kilometres. Or rather he found us. Igor said he was in his house when he heard the distinctive sound of out-of-town motorcycles and went out to identify them.
Immediately Igor chopped up enough wood to fire up his Sauna and heated up some of the tastiest chicken and vegetable soup I have ever had. Terry must had been in agreement because he went back for second and third helpings.
Then Igor’s wife walks in. Noi was Thai and had married Igor and moved to Siberia and the village of Gerbi.
There were about 300 people in Gerbi, and while we were in front of the mayor’s flat one of the villagers mentioned there were a couple of Polish motorcyclists that came thru here last year. I knew of him. A pair of Poles on Africa Twins came to explore the BAM Road last year from Vanino. Thanks to connections in the Polish motorcycling underworld, I had managed to get a copy of the Poles’ GPS notes, where they had marked things like water crossings etc, and had uploaded them to my garmin. Sadly I dont read Polish, but I get the jist of most of the notes. The Poles had made it as far as Isa just before Fevralsk before turning back to the Trans-Siberian Highway. We were still hoping to get further than that. I knew the road west of Tynda was a graded road and no problem, the only problem was getting information on the road between Komsomolsk and Tynda. If we could get to Tynda, the whole BAM road was as good as done!.
Another villager had mentioned an Australian motorcyclist who came through last year. This was one I knew nothing about. I wondered if I had heard wrong and it was a cyclist, rather than a motorcyclist.
Back at Igor’s house, and Noi offered us Thai massages. She works as the village masseuse in Gerbi. This was almost too good to be true. We had been taken in by the motorcyling gods. While Tony and Terry went to the sauna, I received my Thai massage. A full 2 hours later and it was Terry’s turn, and I went into the Sauna to bathe and enjoy a cold beer.
Its really difficult to explain how surreal this was. Again, we were on the receiving end of extraordinary Russian biker hospitality. We had been housed, fed, sauna’ed and massaged after pulling up at a crumbling run down series of buildings that didnt even look inhabited. It was another remarkable end to a Sibirsky Extreme day.
- – -
Igor and Noi had woken before us and fixed breakfast, including some delicious Thai fried rice. The riding gear was slowly drying in the morning sun. The villager who we had met yesterday and who had told us about the Poles dropped by to see if we wanted a lift across the river in his truck. There was a big river crossing just outside of town and apparently the Poles had gone across it on the railway bridge according to this chap. We shouldnt need to do that as the water levels were lower now than then, but he was headed that way anyway so told us he would see us at the river.
We said our farewells to Igor and Noi and hit the road. Sure enough, 2km out of town was a wide river … but not too deep. I crossed it in 3 parts, the latter part the deepest. Terry and Tony had crossed the first 2 sections when the guy with he truck pulled up and offered to ferry them over the last deeper bit. Terry’s thought process was that we can do it ourselves if we need to but if help is being offered, then we should take it, and so Terry and Tony were ferried across the last 3rd of the river.
The road was in bad shape, continuing on in the same form as late yesterday but with a full water crossing every 5 km or so. Progress was slow as we were constantly stopping and wading through thigh deep streams and rivers.
About 2:15pm we came across the first settlement of the day, a logging operation with a few houses around it. Closer inspection revealed all the people in the settlement to be oriental. As we were looking for a shop to buy some soft drink or lunch, I pulled up in front of a building decorated with a red banner and asked where a shop was. 8km down the road was the reply in heavily accented Russian. As I prepared to leave I noted the red banner was decorated with Korean writing. This was a North Korean logging community.
The Russians seem to have granted a few logging concessions to the Chinese and North Koreans … effectively supplying timber to China and North Korea without having to do the harvesting and sawmilling themselves.
Sure enough 8km down the road we got to the town of Suluk, where we did refresh ourselves with ice-cream and soft drink. But we had a long way to go and were back on the road by 3:15pm. Fuel was at Novy Urgal, about 130 km down the road. At the speed we were going that could be 4-5 hours or more. But fortune smiled upon us, and the road from Suluk to Novy Urgal was a good one, a graded road. We relished the chance to ride with more speed and got to Novy Urgal and refuelled by 5pm – the last 15 km was asphalt – pretty bad asphalt, but asphalt never-the-less.
We found the sole cafe in town and sat down for a hot lunch/dinner. Terry liked his escalope so much he ordered the same again. Over dinner we discussed options. It would be 6:30pm by the time we hit the road, and there was no-where to go. No proper towns and no hotels until Fevralsk. Even camping enthusiast Terry was now also of the mindset that camping in Siberia is a last resort only. And so we decided to stay the night in Novy Urgal.
The town has about 7000 people and is the largest town we have seen since Komsomolsk. It has one hotel. We found it and asked for rooms, but alas, the hotel was being renovated and was not taking guests. We had 2 options … ride 30km off our route to Chegdomyn where there was a hotel, or try the railway station, where they have a couple of rooms.
We tried the railway station, and found they would have a triple room free in an hours time. Done!. In the meantime we headed off to find a store to stock up on beers for the night, and paid a visit to the town’s statue of Lenin.
It would be a balmy sticky night and with no ventilation in the tiny triple room, sleep would prove elusive for all of us.
- – -
An early start was called for and delivered via my alarm. We packed up and prepared to leave when I was approached by a guy asking where we were going. We got asked this 100 times a day so I didnt pay too much attention to it. We had planned to get to Fevralsk today and he lived in a town about half way there.
We went back to the cafe from last evening, where the food had been very good, but it didnt open until 11am. It was 9:15 now. We asked around and the only place we could get any prepared food was the hospital store, which sold the likes of piroshki and tea (Russian fast food). So we went there, for a disappointing breakfast, but we needed something solid in the stomachs to power us thru what would probably be a tough day. There were a few Polish GPS notes for this section (implying a problem area) and it seemed the weather too was not going to be as kind to us as it had been in recent days.
By 9:40 we were on the road. The first 50 km was a breeze. Graded gravel road. We passed the village of Alonka by 10:30 and I set my sights on Etyrken for lunch. It was another 90km down the road. But as soon as we passed Alonka the road deteriorated again. Unlike earlier stretches, this section had recently had rain. This road was water hole city! We were carving s-shaped tracks in 1st and 2nd gear to try and get arond the puddles. The puddles became deeper and larger and more frequent – every 5-10 metres. Streams ran down the middle of the track. In many places, the road bed of logs was visible. There were holes in the road where streams ran below the road – when I say holes I mean holes a foot or two across in the middle of the road that went thru the roadbed to a stream a couple of metres below.
It was challenging riding and required full concentration. The first river crossing came up soon after we had passed the first vehicle of the day, a large 4WD GAZ truck. 10 minutes after we arrived at the river crossing, pondering our options, the truck caught us up. We asked for and received a lift over the river. Always with these truck rides, the main issue is to find some sort of loading site, a ramp high enough to push the bikes onto the back of the truck. First I went over, then the other two bikes. It was the only we had seen all day and the only one we would see for many more hours … and it had come along just after we arrived. It was very lucky timing. We offered the guys payment for the lift, but they just laughed and waved it away.
The rain came and the already wet track became wetter. Visibility fell. Terry was leading and took what I suspected was a wrong turn. I hoped he would notice but after a few kilometres he hadnt. I sped up to try to overtake Tony and Terry and turn the team around, but the road didnt like my idea and I caught the steep eroded edge of a stream in the middle of the track and went down. Nowhere near the speed of the fall the other day. This time just at 35-40 km/h. But I looked up and saw Tony and Terry riding away over the crest of a hill.
It had been an exhausting day and I didnt have the energy to pick the bike up. The rain was still falling and without wet weather gear on, I was soaked to the bone. I went to the stream and cleaned myself up a bit and waited for the boys to return. I only had to wait about 10 minutes as Terry did realise we might be on a wrong road and turned round to ask my opinion, only to see I wasnt there. The boys helped me pick up the bike and we went back to the turnoff under the rail bridge that Terry hadnt seen and continued on. This was obviously the right track now, it (a) followed the rail line and (b) had the old roadbed of rotting logs.
After just 3km, the heavens really opened in a full strength tropical downpour. We sheltered under a railway bridge to wait out the rain and ponder how we would make the river crossing beside us. We were now only 20 km from Etyrken village, which by now had become the target for the day. If the rain didnt let up, we would need to make a run for it sooner or later anyway, but after half an hour of sheltering under the BAM the downpour reverted to mere rain, and we decided that was good enough for us.
The river crossing we decided to go for was basically an old log bridge that had collapsed and was now a floating log raft full of holes, jammed in between the banks. The only way across was to walk the bikes over the slippery wet logs. My bike went across OK, but Tony’s got caught and slipped in between two logs. A lot of pushing, lifting, shoving and groaning followed but the bike eventually made it across to the shallows on the other side, from where it splashed down and could be ridden out. Terry’s bike made it across without too much drama and we resumed our drive.
A passing railway maintenance train saw us and watched us struggle through a couple of bogs, tooting wildly with excitement.
There was one more set of Polish notes on my GPS … and it was something to do with a river crossing. We arrived there, now just 14 km form Etyrken and pondered the crossing. I thought we might ask the railway maintenance train (which had a crane) to lift us up and ferry us across on the train bridge, but as we discussed options, yelling was heard coming from the opposite bank. 2 guys were waving their arms and telling us to wait. They got into a big Ural truck and drove across the river. This was an incredible stroke of luck to have a truck arrive just as we needed it. They directed us to a makeshift ramp and loaded all three bikes on board the big Ural for the bumpy rocky river crossing. Once on the other side of the river, all unloaded, we offered the guys cash but they refused.
Then I suddenly realised they were waiting for us. It was something to do with they guy we met at the Railway Station this morning as we departed Novy Urgal. The guy who lived halfway to Fevralsk, the guy that I didnt pay much attention to. I had told him we were going thru Etyrken to Fevralsk and he had scoffed, saying we would not get that far in one day. He was from Etyrken and must have called people there saying watch out for 3 stupid english motorcyclists.
The two guys in the Ural were Nikolai and his son Nikolai. They told us to stop in Etyrken and we would be housed, fed and sauna’d. It was an offer too good for three soaking wet, exhausted riders to pass up. As we are a fair bit faster than the truck, I told them we would wait at the edge of Etyrken for them and we sped off.
Five km from Etyrken and we saw the buildings of the town for the first time. After a full day in the cold and rain, it was like seeing an oasis as you walk through the desert. Sweet, sweet civilisation. We stopped on the edge of town to wait for the two Nicks and a car zoomed up to greet us. The guy introduced himself as Nikolai’s brother. 10 minutes later and the big Ural arrives in town and leads us to the town fire station. Each town in these parts has a fire brigade tasked with monitoring a huge area of forest for forest fires.
We parked up the bikes in the fire station and were led upstairs to a little guest apartment there, complete with kitchen and bathroom. It was now just after 5pm, and the two Nicks said they would be back at 8pm to take us to their banya (sauna).
By now I realised the older Nikolai was the guy who had spoken to me in Novy Urgal. He had taken a train back to Etyrken and then drove out to meet us in the truck. He had been waiting only about 5 minutes when he heard our engines pull up at the river crossing. It was all very lucky, and great timing.
In the banya, we spoke about other foreigners he had met in town. Only motorcyclists and cyclists it seems. He spoke of an Australian cyclist last year – he hadnt met him but had heard about him. And then there was the Polish motorcyclists, (Richard and Richard). They was here for 3 days last year, and consumed a lot of vodka it seems !!! They too stayed in the same guest apartment above the fire station that we were now in according to the locals.
- – -
We awoke about 9am and met Nikolai downstairs. He had bad news on a number of fronts. Firstly, he had called through to guys he knew at a bridge / crossing and water levels were high there after yesterdays rain.
Secondly, he had called ahead to contacts in Fevralsk and Verkhnezeisk to ask about the road beyond Fevralsk. Nikolai himself had driven to Fevralsk in his Ural 2 weeks ago. The 150 km journey had taken 16 hours – such was the road. He briefed me on that road. But the news from both Fevralsk and Verkhnezeisk was that there is no summer road at all. Its only a winter road. Loads of major rivers and no bridges. The road is impassable even in the big 6WD Ural trucks in summer. If even the Urals can only do that stretch in winter, then we had no chance in summer.
The best we could do was to match the efforts of the Polish Africa Twins of last year. But unlike those guys, after Fevralsk, I still wanted to stay and complete all of the BAM that was possible. If the stretch or road from Fevralsk to Tynda is not possible then we would try to do that stretch on the BAM train.
We said fond good-byes to the Nikolai’s and all the guys at the Etyrken fire station and headed off down the road to Fevralsk. It was 150km away and that had been our daily average of the last three days. Yet again (for the third day) I was hoping to be in Fevralsk for dinner.
Incredibly, if it were possible, the road conditions deteriorated even more than the previous day. For about 4 days in a row the track had got progressively worse. Puddles and huge washed away sections dominated the track. Perhaps in keeping with the recent rains, the bottom of the puddles was increasingly sticky mud.
I had by now come to the view that this BAM road between Komsomolsk and Fevralsk is an incredible test of man and machine. It is mind draining, exhausting, endless series of obstacles. If it were a 20-30km weekend run out, it would be tremendous fun and a great challenge, before grabbing a warm pub lunch and a beer on the way home to dry out and relax. But its an endless grind through progressively worse road conditions that goes on for thousands of kilometres.
Technically, doing the Tuva Track earlier in the project was more difficult, but even that was only 150 km. This BAM road is fast becoming, for me, the ultimate test. The road of the past few days has not had any maintenance at least since the soviet times – like the old summer road on the Road of Bones, only the BAM road isnt just 300km long. Its overgrown, eroded, and in very poor shape. If anyone wants a 2 wheel enduro challenge, this road has to considered. Do it from the Vanino / Komsomolsk end though, so as to build up into the gradually deteriorating road through to Fevralsk.
By midday we had reached the big railway bridge over the Ulma. It was the largest water crossing of the day and there were literally zero other vehicles on the road. We had a long chat with the bridge guards.
Major railway bridges are still guarded with Railways Department Troops in case any large countries to the south of Siberia decide to march north and take resource rich Siberia, which would involve cutting off the rail links to the Russian Far East … the Trans Siberian and the BAM. The only reason the BAM even exists is because the Trans Siberian Railway passes much too close to the only country that really covets Siberia and its resources. The Russians needed to build an alternative lest the Trans Siberian fall into other hands.
The bridge guards were very kind, offering us a room in the now abandoned Soviet Army barracks that used to guard the bridge. Apparently one room was furnished with beds and electricity, used by hunters in winter. We said thanks, in case we needed it, and went down to the river to check it out. Tony tried to walk across but it was too deep. We waited by the river for several hours in which time the river level dropped about 10 cm, but we needed about 4 times that. Maybe it would be OK in the morning.
With rain threatening, we returned to the top of hill and the bridge guards. They led us to the small room in the abandoned barracks and we unpacked the bikes. The room was about 2.5 x 2.5 metres, had 2 bunks and a table.
The senior guardsman came up to join us once his shift was finished, as did 2 contractors installing video surveillance equipment on the bridge. They brought vodka, food and good cheer. They mentioned we were the first foreigners this year. In a similar story to other places along the line, these guys reported only being aware of 3 foreigners having been down this road before, the two Poles on motorcycles, who also stayed here, again in the very same room, and the Australian cyclist, all last year.
Amazingly, we were staying in exactly the same room as the Poles a year earlier, for the second night in a row. I have to meet these guys some time – it seems our BAM road journeys are so intertwined its bizarre.
- – -
Our plan for the morning was to defeat the river. I had thought to myself yesterday while staring at the river that the deep bit is only 2-3 metres across and might be able to made shallower with excessive application of rocks. Over vodkas last night in the abandoned military base, the Railway Guard boss man said he thought the Poles last year had made it by throwing rocks into the river as well. That sealed it for me. That was the morning’s plan.
By 10 am we were down by the river. I waded across the fast current twice, in two different places, to find the best place for the rocks to go in. It was freezing cold and chest deep. Then the engineering work began. Two hours later it was finished. Bikes were stripped of bags and Terry’s went across first. All unpowered, pushed only. We learned the hard way that the current was seriously strong and we needed to steer upstream more to stay on track, but we got the bike across.
Sadly the bike didnt fire up on the far bank. Despite jamming rags into the air intake, somehow water had got into the engine. Spark plug was removed and engine blown clean. Then ignition.
Finally it was my bike. The bike made it across but wouldnt fire up. Removing the plugs on the Rotax engine is a bigger job. Airbox needs to come out to get at the plugs. 15 minutes later and the engine was turning over, blowing water out of the plughole. The rag in the air intake was totally dry. Water must have got in to my and Terry’s engine through the exhaust gaskets, and open exhaust valves.
By 1:30 we and all our gear was across the river and all bikes were running. We rode up the steep, deeply rutted road feeling like having overcome that obstacle, we would power ahead to Fevralsk. Its about the 5th day I thought I should get to Fevralsk.
But it wasnt to be. The conditions over the hill were boggy. It began slightly boggy, but soon became a repeat of Tuva … endless bog. We were lucky to do 15 yards on the road before it became the next bog.
Its impossible to put into words how mind draining it is ploughing thru endless bogs, hoping each one is the last, only to reach another 30 yards later. If we got out of first gear, it was never for more than a few seconds.
Rain came and the afternoon soon deteriorated into a farce. We were all soaking wet, and all regularly spending time helping the other bikes out of the bogs. Terry’s bike fell into a hole in one bog, and his air intake, just under his seat, gulped in a mouthful of water. The bike stopped instantly and Terry feared the worst.
In the rain, on a small patch of sand in between bogs Terry released his sump drain. Pure water came out. We drained over a litre from his sump of water and or emulsion. Then his oil tank … also emulsion.
Finally we got to what could pass for oil. I had about 0.8 of a litre of engine oil strapped to the outside of my bike and the lot went into to Terry’s engine to top it up. It wasnt enough, but it would have to do. The engine was still very wet and the starter turned over many many times shooting out water before the plug could go back in. About 45 minutes after he went under, the bike finally fired up again, and we continued.
By 5:30 we had travelled about 9 kilometres from our overnight accomodation and saw, 150 yards away by the railway line, a small empty hut. Camping tonight was out of the question because of the endless bog, not to mention mosquitoes, so the decision was made to abandon play for today and retire to the hut.
The hut was dry inside and had a small wood burning stove, 2 wooden benches and a table. It was 2 x 3 metres. There was no dry wood. A look around outside turned up few blocks of dry wood that Terry and I started splintering for a fire.
The fire was a big success and wet clothes were arranged around the fire to try and dry overnight. Dinner of mash and meat was prepared by Tony using our camp stove and prepacked meals commonly found in general stores. By 7pm it was homely, in a filthy rustic kind of Siberian hardcore way.
A walk along the railway line (brief due to the aggressive mosquitoes) got us thinking about riding on the railway embankment. But that thought could be developed more tomorrow morning.
- – -
We rode up to the edge of the track. A train went past. From that we worked out how far we needed to throw the bikes in case a train came. We rode along the edge of the track along the foot or so of sleeper overhang. It was a killer for the suspension, but after yesterday, in which we did 9 km all day, it was speedy progress. Our first half an hour covered 2 km.
We came to a railway siding and decided to ride down the middle of the siding track. The ballast was much more complete here and we had a much wider track (over 1.5 metres, as opposed to the 30-40cm sleeper overhang on the edge of the track. After another very quick kilometre (barely 5 minutes) we reached a very minor station, Mustakh, … one that served only the siding staff and railway maintenance workers.
Terry and I went inside and asked the lady who was manning the signalling and points control (the only person there) if a cup of tea was out of the question. Tony finally caught up and he too joined us in a cup of tea and chocolate biscuits. We even enquired as to the train situation from here. But the lady firmly told us that no passenger or freight trains stop here. Its just for railway staff only. I didnt think there was much choice anyway, but that confirmed it. We had no option but to leave this island of civilisation in the Siberian wilderness and get going again.
By now I was convinced that we were going to have to do it by road, and not by the edge of the train track. We cut down the embankment and resumed on the road. The first obstacle was a river that seemed to have a ramp built up the other side that could only have been built by motorcyclists. A one wheel ramp was useless to even the big Urals and Zil trucks. It must have been built last year by the Poles. We carefully rode the bikes up the ramp made from 2 old railway sleepers and continued the journey.
The road today was better than yesterday. There were no bogs, but the steep, rocky, eroded inclines were a constant threat to the bikes. By 2pm we were just 10km from Isa and Terry and I were keen to get there as soon as possible. Tony was having a very tough day, and after countless walks back to collect him and right his bike, Terry and I insisted he ride upfront. That would avoid us hiking back up difficult roads time after time. It was the only way for us to ride as a threesome without Terry and I burning out our clutches or starter motors, or riding twice as far as we needed to.
We now had two major problems. Terry’s oil was still looking more like milk after yesterday’s innundation, and there was realistically no way Tony could ride on after Isa on this most difficult track. Our fate would be decided in Isa. By 4pm we had reached Isa, the first town in 3 days. The 65 km from Etyrken had taken us 3 days. We went straight to a general store and consumed everything we could buy; Fruit juice, soft drink, chocolate bars, crisps.
A guy came up to us and chatted about road conditions. I asked about the Poles, and he said “yes, the two Poles, they came here last year and took the train to Fevralsk.” Well that explained why there were no more GPS notes after Isa. I would dearly love to have gone that little bit further than the Poles, to Fevralsk, but with one sick bike and one exhausted rider, and a road that no retail 4WD could even contemplate, it was looking like a bridge too far. It was increasingly apparent, now that we were in Isa (and all almost out of fuel – and with no fuel station in town) that the only sensible thing to do was to take the train from here, as the Poles had done.
The people we spoke to in Isa had only ever seen 5 foreigners come thru here on bikes; The two Poles last year and now the three of us. This part of the BAM road, from Komsomolsk to Isa is truly a Siberian Extreme experience. The 800 km we covered had taken us a week of hard riding. In my mind it is a benchmark road for both rider and machine. To make it to Isa (or beyond) from Komsomolsk is to join a very very small club of riders.
With only a zimnik up ahead beyond Fevralsk, it has to be said that the BAM road is not a viable alternative (at this time) for crossing Russia.
My final verdict on the road? With the Trans-Siberian almost all paved now, and the Rooad of Bones undergoing a load of renewal and upgrading, this is one to the great adventure rides left in Siberia. It’s a truly great challenge for anyone wanting to push the limits of difficult riding in a difficult environment, and I recommend it to the hardcore wholeheartedly.
Two tasks this morning: First to find out why Tony’s right trouser leg was covered in oil and second to get my trousers sewn up, finally. The first was quick and easy … Tony had a leaky fork seal on the RHS and was losing fork oil. As for my trousers, I went for a wander around town and found a general shoe / leather fix-it man and got my trousers restiched together for 60 rubles.
Tecnically the BAM road from Komsomolsk to Vanino includes the stretch we did from Lidoga to Vanino, in reverse, but with the impressive speed of roadbuilding in Russia, we needed to check out if there was any way through following the BAM more closely between Vanino and Komsomolsk. Road atlases were out of date quickly here. Most maps still dont have the road from Lidoga to Vanino in there. The fact that I had no map indicating a road along the BAM certainly didnt mean there was not one.
I asked about the existance of a road in Vanino. No-one knew. The advice I had was to get closer, probably to Orochi, and see what the locals there had to say.
We went up the coast, towards Datta and turned inland a bit to Mongokhto. That was a dead end. Mongokhto was a closed military town. I did however, find out that the road to Orochi was back towards Vanino, and was a turnoff inland. We found the turnoff and headed on down a very dusty track, that for the first mile or two led to a quarry and all the heavy traffic that entailed. The track continued round the edge of the quarry and down a hill, so we followed it. It was a very rough track indeed and the bikes were feeling it. We got to Orochi after an hour on the dirt track and stopped at a shop to refresh ourselves. I asked around about a road forward and was told no. There was an even rougher track to the next town, and then nothing.
Reluctantly, at about 4pm, we decided to head back towards Vanino. As usual, I led the way. But halfway back down the road I noticed I was alone. I found some shade and waited for 10 minutes before I realised I was waiting on a stretch of track that was duplicated. There were countless splits in the road, some times for a few hundred yards, and sometimes for a few kilometres. I was waiting on one track of a split section. The guys had probably gone a different track. I jumped back on the bike and sped ahead, trying to catch them up, while looking for any possible clues to confirm they had been this way in the track.
35km down the track and I saw a 4WD coming the opposite way. I stopped him to ask if he had seen my 2 colleagues ahead, but he hadnt. I was wrong. They must be behind me. I pulled over at a bridge and waited by a river. For 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, 3/4 of an hour … when I reached the hour mark, I decided to turn around and find out whats going on back there. Naturally enough. within 500 metres of turning around I saw Terry … he had had a flat tyre and was now charging back towards Vanino. I turned to follow him and we made it back to the asphalt about 6pm. Only there was no Tony.
‘Terry, when was the last time you saw Tony?’
‘Just before I met you’ he replied.
Bugger … that was 15 km back, maybe more. Neither of us wanted to go back, having made it back to asphalt. We decided to give him 15 minutes. That too came and went. We turned the bikes around and headed back into the dustbowl. Only a mile down the road Tony was marooned on the side of the road, with quarry trucks buzzing past regularly. He had hit a big bump and the bike had died. Ignition cut out. Electrics still worked but ignition wasnt firing.
Manufacturers are obliged to sell motorcycle with a cut out so that the engine cant run when the side stand is down, unless the bike is in neutral. Thats all good and well for road bikes, but if you do a bit of dirt roads or off road, then you really have to short the switch. I had mentioned this to Tony but he hadnt gotten around to it yet. Tony got down in the dust and traced the switch wire. It had been severed by an impact where it was attached to the frame. The ends were trimmed back and we began the trial and error process of identifying which 2 of the 3 wires needed to be shorted.
I spoke to the guys, and amended the plan. When we turned around at Orochi, we had planned to make the cafe and hotel at the halfway mark of the Vanino Road. Now, with Terry’s flat and Tony’s side stand switch, we would be better off just going back to Vanino.
And so we returned to the Hotel, checked in for another night and while we still had some daylight, Terry, who had had a look at Tony’s F650 manual and decided we/he could have a go at changing Tony’s leaking fork seal, started stripping Tony’s front end. While the lads did the fork seak change, I went out and got the team some beers, to work with.
A middle aged woman speaking very bad english tried to talk to us from a window in the hotel, while we worked in the yard. Eventually I worked out she was Flemish and spoke to her in Dutch. She had just taken the BAM train to Vanino and was about to take the Trans-Siberian back from Vladivostok.
I took a run around town in search of hydraulic oil that we could use in the forks. I didnt find any but I did find a local biker. He then turned up at the hotel with a couple of biker colleagues. We had 3 of the 5 bikers in Vanino visiting us now. One of the bikers quizzed us about what we needed and then made some calls to contacts, in search of 10W or 15w hydraulic fluid.
He promised to return in the morning with the stuff.
After the boys had fitted the seal and refitted the fork we showered and went out for a late night pizza and beer session. All we had to do in the morning was top up the fork with fluid and go. The pizza, I should add, was surprisingly good!
- – -
Tony awoke us at 9am. The local bikers had returned as promised with 1.5 litres of hydraulic fluid … and a cameraman from the local paper. With so much fluid Tony decided to drain the other fork and replace both sets of oil. Terry and I went out and bought some fruit from the market. We probably havent eaten enough fruit and veg on the Sibirsky Extreme Project to date.
By 11:30 all was packed and we hit the road back towards Lidoga and then Komsomolsk. We knew the road conditions well – the first 80km from Vanino was asphalt, and had a petrol station at the end of that 80 km stretch. Then the dirt started. Down into big valleys and up the other side. It was very easy on the eyes and the only drag was getting the dust from behind trucks.
Every 20 km or so I would slow down and make sure everyone was still with us. 20 km before the half way cafe, and the boys were no behind me. I retraced 15 km where I found Terry with his second flat front tyre in 2 days.
Traction on the wooden bridge was very different to the gravel. It was much slipperier. The back wheel lost traction on the wood while I was accellerating hard in 3rd gear and flicking the bike to one side to overtake the car as the bridge was ending. The bike fishtailed wildly from one side to another as I hit the gravel and it felt like I was riding a bucking bronco. After the first kick or two I realised I was going to lose it, and it was going to be a bad fall.
I went down on rough gravel at about 60-70 km/h. To my own surprise, I was able to pick myself up straight away and signal to Terry that I was down. The bike was facing backwards, and had a small oil leak from the generator cover. Sliding on the gravel had punctured the engine housing slightly. I looked myself over. My right arm ached around the elbow. The cordura outer of my jacket had been worn through, but the inner protection layer had done its job. Similarly the motocross gloves I was wearing had worn thru but only just. I had nothing to show for it but an aching arm and some very light scratching on my right wrist and elbow.
Terry took out some epoxy metal putty and cleaned up my engine housing while I went back to the bridge and cleaned myself up in the cold stream. 20 minutes after the fall and we were all back on the way to the cafe.
After lunch, the throbbing arm was throbbing more. The elbow had swollen up like a balloon and it was hard gettng it inside the jacket. I told the guys I wont be taking the jacket off again today!. We continued on towards Lidoga as a lesser pace, more like a sedate 80 km/h rather than the 100 – 110 we had been doing. The bikes, and now we ourselves, we taking a pounding on the road. But the Vanino road had not finished with us yet !
As we approached the 60km asphalt section at the Lidoga end of the road, the last 20 km of dirt was the roughest of the road. We slowed right down to take this rugged potholed stretch. Terry had been concerned he needs to make his bike last all the way back to england so I let him set the pace. Every bump was now felt as pain in my arm as the inflamed flesh was jerked about. We made the end of the dirt and waited for Tony.
We waited … and waited … and waited. After 20 minutes, and with neither of us wanting to go back onto that rough stretch, Tony appeared, riding what appeared to be a BMW Dakar chopper. His back suspension had broken off 7-8 km back. The bike was sitting very low, but the spring was resting roughly on a bit of suspension linkage. The bike was rideable. It was almost 5pm and we still had 250 km to go to Komsomolsk.
All three of us had been in the wars today. It was a straight forward road but the bikes had taken a hammering. As for my fall, I can only assume that there was a bit of overconfidence there. It had been several months since I dropped the bike. None of them at any sort of speed more than 5-10 km/hr. I had ridden about 10,000 km on the dirt roads of Siberia, aggressively, without a fall and I suspect that played a big part in the overconfidence. Now my arm was smarting. A little more measured riding was in order.
We hit the main road from Khabarovsk to Komsomolsk and I had a chat with Tony while we refuelled. We could turn back to Khabarovsk where we knew bikers and mechanics, but Tony refused to be beaten. He insisted we push on to Komsomolsk. He would lead the way and set the pace, on his Dakar ‘chopper’.
As we continued north on the asphalt road, we crossed the 50th parallel. The weather in Vladivostok – Khabarovsk region had been very eastern … hot and muggy, but the further north we went, the dryer the air became. Tony was powering on at 100km/h, slowing only when he saw bumps that his badly wounded suspension might not handle.
Around 8:30pm we reached the Amur bridge, just south of Komsomolsk. The river narrowed between some headlands here and was only about 2km wide. it wad been up to 10km wide for much of the time we were tracking it. I stopped to take a picture while Tony and Terry continued on. As I started to take off again, a local biker rode up beside me and flagged me down. This was perfect. We knew no-one in Komsomolsk, and no idea where to get Tony’s shock lugs repaired.
Vadim was the biker and I very quickly ascertained there were bikers and a good mechanic or two in Komsomolsk. We continued across the bridge and met up with Tony and Terry on the other side. Vadim took a look at Tony’s rearr end and got straight on the phone. Then it was a ‘follow me – 10 kilometres to bikers’ instruction and we readily complied.
By 11pm Tony’s bike had the suspension out, Terry’s and my biikes were also safely parked in Yegor’s garage (Yegor and his wife Oksana were the senior motorcycle folk in Komsomolsk) and we were all back at Yegor and Oksana’s flat with a bunch of other bikers being feed dinner!
What a remarkably hospitable end to a very tough day for the three of us.
- – -
Komsomolsk was pretty much a closed town in the good old days. There was and still is a lot of military and hi-tech manufacturing here. Most of the guys we were meeting either worked for Sukhoi aircraft factory, building jet fighters or the submarine factory.
Despite being 500km upstream from the mouth of the Amur, the river is more than big enough to handle ocean going submarines! The new great white hope for Russian civil aviation, the Sukhoi Superjet, is also being built here in Komsomolsk.With all that hi-tech manufacturing, its not surprising that no-one we were meeting was born here. They all moved here because they had specialised skills. So most guys here were skilled metal workers one way or another. And good quality alloy and steel would also not be hard to find, should it be needed to repair Tony’s ill machine.
Spring compressors arrived at the garage and the spring was removed. The broken end piece of the shock was removed and Kostya felt the best solution would be to remake the same part, in steel, for strength. We agreed, if indeed it was possible. And they assured us it was.
While Tony looked after his bike and supervised progress, Terry and I took a ride down to the river, a popular sunning spot in town, and did a little sunbathing of our own.
When we returned to the garage, there was more bad news re Tony’s bike. While the shock piece was off getting repaired, the local lads had taken a look at Tony’s front rim. It was all over the place. The local view was it was unfixable. If the locals think its unfixable, and they can fix almost anything, then its unfixable.
A steel 21 inch rim (quite a bit heavier than Tony’s) was produced. It wasnt new, but was still in good shape. Tony’s wheel was stripped and the local motorcycle wheel builder went about rebuilding the wheel in Yegor’s garage. A couple of hours later and it was basically finished.
We took the gang (Yegor, Oksana, Kostya, the wheel builder and 3 other local bikers) out for shashlik. They were housing us and looking after our bikes (including doing extensive repair work to Tony’s) before heading back to Yegor’s for evening beers.
It was hard to work out how to thank these guys enough.
30.07.09 Birthday Time
The bikes were liberated from the Vladivistok port, conveniently located right behind the main railway station, just a few hundred yards from our hotel. Also located just a few hundred yards from our hotel was the Gutov beer house – which by now had become the unofficial Sibirsky Extreme meeting, eating and drinking place in Vladivostok. Tony and I had told Terry we would meet him there when we got the bikes out. By 5:00pm we three assembled in front of the beer house, got the luggage and were joined by a fourth rider.
Jun was a Korean guy off on his first big adventure on a F650GS. He had met Leon on the docks at Zarubino (where the ferry from South Korea arrives in Russia), and Leon had told him to get in touch with us in Vladik. He had found us in the middle of the night last night and asked if he could ride with us as far as we were riding the same route … which in this case was Khabarovsk. It would be a good chance for us to pass on our wisdoms (or otherwise) about riding in Russia and motorcycle travel in general.
The four of us left the Gutov beer house at 6:30pm. It was about 30 degrees and really humid. The priority was getting airflow thru the clothes and I led the way out of town at a brisk pace. We zoomed in and out of the traffic, slowing down only for the traffic police posts.
About 200 km out of town and we hit the first bit of gravel road – a stretch of roadworks about 800 yards long. A couple of kilometres down the road and Terry and I stopped to wait for Tony and Jun, who had disappeared after we had blasted thru the roadworks. After 2 minutes, we turned round and returned.
Jun was down!. Off the road. The bike was off the embankment and down a yard or two. Jun seemed ok, but the bike was in bad shape. One of his plastic panniers had broken open completely and his stuff was scattered throughout the dust. It was his first few hundred yards off asphalt. I have never been to South Korea but from what I have heard, the roads are immaculate asphalt, similar to Japan. I am not surprised Korean riders have never seen dirt roads before arriving in Russia.
Terry set about sorting out a temporary fix for Jun’s pannier, while I tackled his badly bent gear lever. Tony was helping sort out Jun psychologically – telling him that these things happen and everything is fixable, and giving him tips on dirt riding.
One thing that didnt seem fixable was the clutch lever. It had snapped near the base. Jun came up with the answer himself after Terry had been unable to splint it. He had a pair of multigrips and clamped them round the base of the clutch lever. His clutch now was a pair of multigrips.
Terry, using his years of wild-man enduro riding experience, took Jun’s bike back up the embankment and onto the dirt road. We all chipped in to put the luggage safely back on and rode on to the next town where we found a hotel and settled down for the night.
It was a crazy, surprising 40th birthday … We celebrated by going to the local store (all restaurants were closed by now in the village of Sibirtsovo) and loading me up with my favorite beer, Sibirsky Korona with Lime. But it was a birthday in which Tony and I got our bikes back and on the road and Terry finally got going in Russia.
Think he was getting a little stir crazy in Vladivostok.
- – -
We slept in till 11am before Tony knocked on my door and suggested we make a move. The beers were still wearing off. Soon after leaving we were within 5km of the Chinese border. Tony and I both received texts welcoming us to China. This is the region that is home to the Siberian Tiger, largest cat on earth. Only the Russians dont call it the Siberian Tiger, since they dont consider the far east to be Siberia. Here the big cat is called the Ussuri Tiger or Amur Tiger, after the two big reivers that dominate the region between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
It was another sweltering day, and I was determined to make it to Khabarovsk. I had texted a contact in Khabarovsk that we would get there this evening and I dont like revising plans if I can help it. Roman, our man in Khabarovsk, also had a set of tyres for me, a set of tyres for Tony and a rear sprocket for Tony.
Jun had clearly listened to the advice the three of us had given him … particularly to relax and dont try to or expect to control the bike as precisely on the dirt as you can on the asphalt. We went thru a few more roadworks sections including some deep gravel, and Jun made it without problems.
We stopped for lunch and I introduced both Jun and Terry to Shashlik, a fine delicacy and a common source of protein for the Sibirsky Extreme Project. As it happens it was the finest shashlik I had eaten since Uzbekistan and the meal made a very positive impression on Jun and Terry.
About 200km from Khabarovsk the sun faded away in about 5 minutes and within a few more minutes the rain was pelting down. As the light faded I had zipped up while riding so headed on into the rain. Tony did the same. Jun had stopped earlier to put on wet weather gear. I saw a covered petrol station and Tony and I dived in there just as the storm picked up intensity. Terry behind us hadnt seen us or the petrol station, but had stopped 200 yards short of it to put on his wet weather gear.
We waved frantically at him so as to encourage him not to bother as we were only 20 seconds ride down the road, but to no avail – Terry wasnt looking up. By the time Terry finally got on the road, saw us sheltered and dry in the petrol station and pulled in there too, Jun pulled up, just where Terry had stopped. Again we waved any tried to catch his eye, but Jun didnt see us. He was on the side of the road 200 yards away, adjusting his wet weather gear in the heart of the tropical downpour.
Finally we all met up in the fuel station and waited for the storm to pass. It was clearly a localised storm cell, and I advised us to button up and ride through it (it was headed roughly the same direction as us). Off we went into the intensifying rain and darkness, and just when it was at its peak, I caught a glimpse of blue sky ahead. 3 minutes after the heart of the storm and we were on totally dry road. I turned round to give the boys the “I told you so” look, but there were only 3 of them. Terry had stopped back in the storm as it was worsening, to put on his waterproofs again. Oh he of little faith!
It was almost 8pm when we got to the outskirts of Khabarovsk. We arrived as a three, as Jun had dropped off the pack somewhere down the road. Tony suggested he go back for Jun while Terry and I push on into the city to find the gps co-ordinates I had been given for Roman (and our tyres).
10 minutes later and we were with Roman. I called Tony to find out the latest on where he was and had he found Jun. Tony had found Jun not far back and they had been met by a Russian biker on a yellow Honda X11. A bit on confusion followed before we realised that the guy on the yellow bike was a mate of Roman’s and 5 minutes later we were all re-united at Roman’s massive garage.
Roman lived onsite at a big automotive service centre in Khabarovsk. He said the plan was we garage the bikes, take just what we need and he will run us into a hotel. We did that, checked into the Amur Hotel, showered and headed around the streets of downtown Khabarovsk to an Irish Bar round the corner for some much needed food and refreshments.
- – -
Saturday began with a plan to get to the bikes and start working on them about 9am. Roman had arranged for a bike mechanic to check the bikes out around 11am and we had a list of things to get done. We hadnt given the bikes any real loving since Mirny, and that was over 4000 km ago.
I needed to change my oil from the temporary mineral oil solution I used in Mirny back to the full synthetic I preferred. Air filter had to be cleaned, new tyres and mousses had to be fitted, both of my rims needed a little bashing, and my front assembly needed straightening up. Also needed to find why one of my headlights hadnt been working since Yakutsk. Tony had a more comprehensive list, and Jun also now had a list of things that needed to be attended to.
We started on the lists while we waited for the mechanic. Terry put on the knobblies he had been carrying since Seoul. That was his list done. The mechanic, Sasha, arrived checked out what had to be done and said he will do stuff tomorrow as he is busy today. We continuted to work away on the lists.
I removed my front assembly, found a blown fuse on my headlight switch so solved that problem. With a bit of heaving I had bent the front assembly straight. With a bit of Jun’s Korean shampoo I cleaned my air filter. My bike went up on a stand and both wheels were removed. The tyres were removed and I took the rims downstairs with a big mallet to sort them out. Later in the afternoon, Slava, the guy on the yellow Honda, ran me down to the Shinomontazh (tyre service centre) with my rims, new tyres and mousses.
I had a set of Michelin Deserts delivered to Roman’s address by a pair of Russian bikers from Moscow who had come out this way a week earlier. They were riding across Sakhalin, or rather Sakhalin top to bottom. It was another rendezvous I had hoped to make, and to join them for their 2 week adventure, but I was still about a week behind the initially planned schedule, so they went ahead to Sakhalin without us, leaving the tyres with Roman.
Also with the tyres were a pair of Michelin bib-mousses. I was tempted to get another set of mousses sent out earlier to Irkutsk so I could have used them on the Irkutsk – Magadan leg, but concerns about fitting the mousses made me err on the side of conservatism. This time I would try the mousses - especially after all the flat tyres we (or rather Tony) had between Irkutsk and Magadan – 14 in all !!!
Down at the shino-montazh, the big burly Russian lads had never even heard of mousse, let alone seen one, or fitted one. Luckily the mousse came with lubricant and diagram instructions for fitting. The boys took to it like kids with a new toy.
Slava lubed up the inside of the tyres while extra tyre levers were called for. They were going to tackle the mousses by hand! The front went first and only needed 3 guys straining and groaning with extra long tyre levers to get it on. The rear took longer … a good 10 minutes, with the tyre being levered onto the rim one inch at a time, this time it took 4 guys. But we got there. Puncture free off road motorcycling. These mousses will last me at least to Irkutsk and maybe beyond. I hadnt ridden with them before so it was a good chance for me to try them out.
Evening came and Slava insisted we head out with him to the Harley Davidson cafe near the river in Khabarovsk. At the time it was suggested, we just wanted to head back to the hotel for a shower – but felt obliged to do whatthe locals asked as they had been so helpful to us. The 30 degree temperatures were still complimented by 90+ percent humidity and we were all a pool of sweat. Tony had been working thru his list all day and Terry had been lending both of us a hand, in between snoozing on the floor.
Once down at the Harley cafe, our mood changed immediately. Cold beers came out and we were being feted as celebrities passing thru by the staff and the band that had just started playing. The band was good, the crowd lively, the beers cold. In between sets, we were entertained with the likes of female arm wrestling. Jun was ecstatic. his first day in Russia had been a bad one, having his wallet stolen. His second saw him come off his bike and he at a very low ebb. Now we had make it to Khabarovsk, his bike was well on the way to getting fixed, and Russian bikers, Slava in particular, had been helping him out all day to get the bits he needed to get, and now he was being treated as a visiting celebrity by local bikers. It was great to see the change in his face over the past 24 hours.
After the Harley cafe we went to Garazh, another bikers bar, for some food before finally making it home for those much needed showers around midnight. A great evening had been had by all.
- – -
Back to the garage where my last remaining task was the oil change. We needed Sasha the mechanic for that, as he had the oil draining machine.
We were leaving a useful stash of used tyres here in Khabarovsk, and anyone passing thru this way who needs them is happy to avail themselves of the tyres. There are 3 x 21 inch tyres there. 2 x 17 inch rears and 1 x 18 inch rear. If anyone needs any of them on their cross Russia travels, get in touch thru the blog.
Sasha founds some bolts Tony needed to complete his suspension linkage problems, before doing the oil changes. Sasha was also a biker and despite it being a Sunday, was happy to work on the bikes. One of the other guys who worked at the Auto centre was having a birthday and the afternoon was punctuated with constantly having to stop for shashlik and vodka!
Jun had been in the workshop with Slava for much of the morning and came out punching the air and screaming how much he loves Russia. Slava had repaired his busted pannier with metal sheeting and no less than 50 rivets. He just needed his alloy clutch lever repaired and he was back on the road, good as new. The welding couldnt happen today as it was a Sunday and the argon welder was back at work on Monday.
By the afternoon, our long extensive list of things to do was all done … except I needed some stitching done on my riding trousers. That too was a Monday morning job, along with Jun’s clutch lever.
The evening was spent down at the Irish pub, giving Jun a list of useful Russian words and phrases. He would be going a different way to us once we left Khabarovsk. He is in better shape to tackle Russia and its roads now than he was when we met him in Vladivostok – and that was a good thing.
- – -
After breakfast, we helped Jun get a mobile phone. South Korea and Japan have different mobile phone systems to the GSM world (everywhere except Japan, South Korea and North America) so he will need to be in contact with family, friends and other travellers like us along the way to Europe.
Then it was off to the bikes. Sasha the mechanic had argon welded Jun’s clutch lever, and everything apart from my riding trousers was in readiness for the road. Sadly Roman, the only guy who new the good place to get the trousers stitched, was out of town. So we packed up and prepared to leave.
Jun rode with us to the main road and the fuel station where we topped up with fluids and fuel. We said farewell to him there at 2pm and wished him well. He was heading west to Birobidzhan, and we were headed north east, to Vanino, and the start of the BAM railway.
It was very much a ferry stage … there was not a lot to see until we turned off the main road. It did feel a little like riding thru the east coast of Australia … lots of forest, long empty roads, sparsely spread out towns. We stopped for a bang up lunch in the town of Mayak.
By 6pm we turned off at Lidoga, the turnoff to Vanino. We had fuelled up for the 333km road, which I assumed would be all dirt. We would have to push the speed to get to Vanino by nightfall. To my (and Terry’s) disappointment, the road was asphalt … at least the first 60 km was. The fun started after the 60 km mark. The road wound thru low hills, following rivers and was a lot more twisty than the dirt roads we had ridden further up north. The first few dozen miles was just getting used to the feel of the new knobblies on the dirt road, but once the comfort factor increased, we cranked up the speed.
“Enduro Terry” saw a chance to speed past a van in some thick mud and ended up in the mud himself. His first hour on dirt roads of the trip and he muddies himself up. Humidity was near 100% all day, and most of the rivers were covered with mist. I guess the water in them is a few degrees cooler than the air.
After the halfway mark, the speed cranked up again to 110 km/h as the roads were a bit straighter. with 70 km to go and darkness not far away, we hit asphalt again. The 200 km of dirt roads were behind us and the bright lights of Vanino came into view just before 10pm. By 10:15 we were showering in a hotel by the Pacific, BAM railway in full voice across the street.
We were now in position to start the next phase of the project, the BAM railway road.